Vridar

2013/06/04

The Distinctive Uses of Names in the Gospel of John

Filed under: Brodie: Quest Origin John's Gospel,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 11:07 pm
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questoriginjohngospelWhoever wrote the Gospel of John knew how to blend geographical and personal names with other-worldly theological symbolism. So suggests Thomas L. Brodie in an appendix to The Quest for the Origin of John’s Gospel.

To address just a few. (I have in other posts addressed several of these already: otherwise unknown places like Capernaum meaning “village of comfort”; Aenon near Salim meaning “springs of peace”; and so forth.)

Sea of Galilee of Tiberias

Only John speaks of the “sea of Galilee of Tiberias” (John 6:1). Brodie comments that this name

is awkward but . . . has a connotation of universality appropriate to the theme of chapter 6. (p. 160)

So I went back to have another look at John 6 and wonder if he might have a point. The setting introduces the miracle of the miraculous feeding of the 5000, a miracle related in all four gospels. But in the Gospel of John there are two named disciples, Philip and Andrew (who is again said to be Simon Peter’s brother), who are addressed in order to initiate the miracle. This gospel also points out that all this happened at the Passover, which is explicitly said to be the Jews’ feast. We are reminded of the end of the gospel where again on the eve of the Passover we read of Philip being approached to Greeks asking to see Jesus. Philip is a Greek name and here at the sea of the Roman Tiberias we have Greek and Jewish names coming together at the meal symbolizing the salvation of the world through Christ’s whose passover flesh and bread will save all those who eat.

Ephraim near the wilderness

Then in John 11:54 we read that Jesus went to another otherwise unknown “city/polis” called Ephraim. This “city” is said to be near the wilderness. Is it significant that the name of this city beside the wilderness means “fruitful”? This apparently rather pointless little detail, of Jesus going to an otherwise unknown village, does little more, it seems, than pause the reader before going on to read about Jesus being anointed for his death and then being hailed as the King of Israel with the “whole world going after him”. Jesus’ words concluding this section are a metaphor: a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die and only then will it bear much fruit in abundance. Ephraim alongside the wilderness?

Bethany beyond Jordan and Bethany beside Jerusalem

The beginning of the Gospel finds John the Baptist preaching at Bethany beyond Jordan (John 1:28).

Then before Jesus is to die we are taken to another Bethany (John 11:1) not far outside Jerusalem (John 11:18) to witness the mournful moment of the death of Lazarus. Jesus is called for but he stays away to let him die for a reason. But where is he?

In John 10:40 the reader is informed that Jesus had returned to the place where John was baptizing. Bethany beyond Jordan, if we recall. Brodie sees here

an ambiguity which is perfectly suited to the Lazarus story: it suggests, when death strikes, that the Lord, who apparently is absent, in fact is present. (p. 161)

Theology outweighs geography

Thus while the theological dimension of John’s cities is strong, their hold on history is often fragile.

A further factor is worth noting. Most of the cities or towns peculiar to John are largely or totally unknown to geographers — Bethany beyond the Jordan, Aenon near Salim, Sychar, Ephraim. Thus while the theological dimension of John’s cities is strong, their hold on history is often fragile. (p. 161, my highlighting)

‘Ello, ‘ello, what’s all this then? (more…)

2013/05/12

Jesus and Dionysus (3)

Filed under: Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 8:10 am
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Continuing from the Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play . . . .

It would be a mistake to confine our comparison of the Gospel of John’s Jesus with Euripides’ play. Bacchae has no reference to the Dionysian miracle of turning water into wine (see the first post in this series for details) yet numerous commentators on the Gospel’s Cana Wedding miracle of turning water into wine have pointed to resonances with the Greek counterpart.

Further, it would be shortsighted to dismiss any comparison of the Gospel’s Jesus with Dionysus on the grounds that there is no obvious link between Jesus’ crucifixion and the dismemberment (the sparagmos) of the enemy of Dionysus.

Suffering and Power

English: Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacc...

Dionysus (Richard Werner) in The Bacchae, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, when the god’s enemy undergoes humiliation and dismemberment he is really sharing in or identifying with the sufferings of the god. His name is, after all, Pentheus, with verbal resonances with “pathos” (suffering); and we have seen that the purpose of the god is to come to relieve the suffering of humanity through his gift of wine, and the play itself speaks constantly of the suffering that Pentheus must undergo as punishment for his attempt to thwart the purpose of the god. It is through the suffering of Pentheus (identifying with the sufferings of the god) that the god who comes in apparent weakness, as an effeminate mortal, is exalted — his victorious and divine power is displayed for all!

The “discovery of Dionysiac echoes in John’s story as a whole” (Stibbe, p. 2) — in particular with the miracle of Cana, (the identification, one might add, of Jesus with the vine itself), the binding of Jesus, the dialogue with Pilate and the pathos of Jesus’ crucifixion — requires us to look beyond the tragedy itself and to look at all that the myth conveyed.

Indeed, there are other myths where Dionysus inflicted the same punishment upon others apart from Pentheus. King Lycurgus of Thrace also opposed the worship of Dionysus. Dionysus punished him by sending him into a mad frenzy during which he dismembered his own son; subsequently his citizens pulled him apart limb by limb in order to remove the curse of Dionysus from their land.

An early form of the myth is that Dionysus was originally born to Persephone, queen of the underworld (Hades). (It is not insignificant, for our purposes, that some of the myths tell us Zeus intended this new child to be his heir.) The jealous wife of Zeus (Hera) who had fathered the child persuaded the evil Titans to destroy the infant. Attempting to avoid capture by the pursuing Titans Dionysus changed himself into a bull, but was caught in this form and pulled limb from limb. The Titans then devoured these dismembered pieces of flesh. Zeus punished them by destroying them with thunderbolts, and from the ashes humankind was created, a mixture of the evil of Titans and the divinity of Dionysus.

Twice Born, from Below and Above

Through all of that chaos one piece of Dionysus was rescued, his heart, which was returned to Zeus. Zeus used the heart (the myths and means by which he did this vary) to give Dionysus a second birth, so he became known as the “twice-born” god.

A later version of the myth, the one that lies behind the play by Euripides, is that Zeus had fathered Dionysus with the mortal woman, Semele. Again Hera sought to kill the child, this time before it was born, by challenging Semele to see Zeus in all his glory. When Zeus showed himself in all his godliness Semele, of course, was struck dead. But Zeus rescued the child from her womb and sewed it into his thigh until it was ready to be born a second time, from the god himself.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel of John does not need to be reminded of Jesus explaining the mystery of being born a second time from above. (more…)

2013/05/09

Jesus and Dionysus (2): Comparison of John’s Gospel and Euripides’ Play

Filed under: Gospel of John,Stibbe: John as storyteller — Neil Godfrey @ 10:58 pm
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This post continues from my earlier one that concluded with Mark W. G. Stibbe’s “very broad list of similarities” between Euripides’ Bacchae (a play about the god Dionysus) and the Gospel of John. Stibbe discusses these similarities in John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel.

What Mark Stibbe is arguing

0521477654Stibbe makes it clear that he is not suggesting the evangelist

necessarily knew the Bacchae by heart and that he consciously set up a number of literary echoes with . . . that play (p. 137)

What he is suggesting is that

John unconsciously chose the mythos of tragedy when he set about rewriting his tradition about Jesus and that general echoes with Euripides’ story of Dionysus are therefore, in a sense, inevitable.

Stibbe firmly holds to the view that the Gospel of John is base on an historical Jesus and much of its content derives from some of the earliest traditions about that historical Jesus. The evangelist, he argues, was John the Elder, and he has derived his information from

  • a Bethany Gospel (now lost) that was based on the eye-witness reminiscences of Lazarus, who was also the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel;
  • a Signs Gospel (now lost);
  • the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

His final chapter in John as Storyteller consists largely of a point by point argument that the events of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel are based on historical events.

At the same time, Mark Stibbe is arguing that the author, John the Elder, is constructing his supposedly historical source material in a quite literary manner. He has chosen to write about the life and death of Jesus as a tragedy, argues Stibbe, and this was quite a natural thing to do because, we are assured, Jesus’ life and death just happened to be acted out in real life like a tragedy. It was a natural fit.

That’s where Stibbe is coming from.

Mark Stibbe, a vicar of St Mark’s Church at Grenoside (Sheffield) and part-time lecturer in biblical studies at the University of Sheffield when he wrote this book, writes from the limited perspective of formal New Testament studies. So he writes from the viewpoint of a Christian studying why the Gospel of John wrote about the very real founder of his faith, Jesus, would echo aspects of a Greek tragedy.

What this post is questioning

I’m interested in a different perspective. A proper study of religion from a scientific perspective would be through anthropology, I would think. New Testament studies are primarily about analysing and deconstructing and reconstructing biblical or Christian myths. The end result must always be a new version of their myth, if we follow Claude Lévi-Strauss.

I last posted along this theme in 2011:

Since I began this new series I have found another who takes a similar perspective. Frank Zindler writes: (more…)

2013/04/29

Jesus and Dionysus: The Gospel of John and Euripides’ Bacchae

Filed under: Gospel of John,Stibbe: John as storyteller — Neil Godfrey @ 10:45 pm
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diojesusNo, I am not going to argue that Christianity grew out of the worship of Dionysus or that original idea of Jesus was based upon Dionysus. Rather, I am exploring the possibility that the portrayal of Jesus that we find in the Gospel of John is in significant measure a variant of the Greek Dionysus myth.

This possibility arises, I suspect, when we bring together the following:

  1. the insights of theologian Mark Stibbe into the way the Jesus story is told in the Gospel of John
  2. an understanding of the techniques used by ancient authors to imitate earlier literary masters (this goes well beyond Stibbe’s own contributions)
  3. the various ancient versions of the myth of Dionysus (this is preparatory to the fourth point . . . . )
  4. an anthropologist’s structural analysis of myths, in particular the methods of Claude Lévi-Strauss (this brings together key themes and information from the above three areas in a manner that strongly indicates the Jesus we read about in the Gospel of John is a Christian variant of the Dionysus myth.) — And yes, I will take into account the several works of Jonathan Z. Smith supposedly overturning the possibility of such connections.

This should hardly be a particularly controversial suggestion. Most theologians agree that the Christ we read of in the Gospels is a myth. These posts are merely attempting to identify one source of one of those mythical portrayals.

Let’s look first at what Mark Stibbe (John As Storyteller: Narrative Criticism and the Fourth Gospel) tells us about the literary affinities between the Gospel of John and the Bacchae, a tragedy by Euripides. Though the Greek play was composed five centuries before the Gospel it nonetheless remained known and respected as a classic right through to the early centuries of the Roman imperial era. Moreover, we have evidence that as early as Origen (early third century) the Gospel was compared with the play. See Book 2, chapter 34 of Origen’s Against Celsus.

But Stibbe does not argue that the evangelist directly borrowed from the play. Despite the many resonances between the two he writes:

It is important to repeat at this stage that I have nowhere put forward the argument for a direct literary dependence of John upon Euripides. That, in fact, would be the simplest but the least likely solution. (p. 139)

It certainly would be the simplest solution. The reason Stibbe thinks it is the “least likely” option, however, is the fact of there being significant differences between the gospel and the play. What Stibbe has failed to understand, however, is that literary imitation in the era the Gospel was characterized by similarities and significant differences that generally served to set the new work apart on a new thematic level. The classic illustration of this is the way Virgil imitated Homer’s epics to create the Aeneid. The differences that are just as important as the similarities and that even establish the very reason for the imitation. But all of this is jumping ahead to the next post.

Let’s look for now at the similarities, similarities that according to Stibbe may well be explained simply by the evangelist’s general awareness of the “idea of tragedy” in his culture.

Water into Wine

It is often noted that Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana reminds us of the myth of Dionysus turning water into wine. Stibbe writes that such a miracle is entirely possible (more…)

2013/04/04

What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke

Filed under: John N. Collins,Luke-Acts,Oral Tradition — Neil Godfrey @ 12:13 pm
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Witnesses of the Resurrection

Witnesses of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

The most solid argument I have read about what the word in Luke 1:2 translated as “eyewitnesses” actually means is by John N. Collins: see the post What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? Collins presents a cogent argument that the word really means officials who have the responsibility for the writings/library of the community: it is their job to assess and preserve the authenticity of the documents entrusted to them — they are “specially authorized guarantors of the traditions.”

But in this post I am backtracking and working from the assumption that the word does convey the idea of one who sees firsthand some event. What I am saying here is this: What if the word really did express the idea of a witness? What does such a witness mean for Luke?

Norman Perrin answered this question nearly forty years ago in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus.

Firstly, Perrin begins by reminding modern readers that they must leave behind their modern conceptions and make an effort to enter the world of the biblical authors. Get out of your heads any modern notion of what the word “eyewitness” means to us today who are familiar with the concept from our newspaper reports and court proceedings:

If we resolutely ban from our minds . . . what a modern writer would mean by an ‘eyewitness’ and ask ourselves what Luke meant by the expression . . . . (p. 27)

Perrin’s conclusion?

Luke considers Paul an eyewitness!

Perrin explains: (more…)

2013/04/02

Final of “Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius”: Tackling New Questions

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This post continues from The (Apellean) Gospel of Peregrinus and concludes the series.

TDOP = The Death of Peregrinus by Lucian. Harmon’s translation here.

Links to all posts in this series are collated at: Roger Parvus: Letters Supposedly Written by Ignatius

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In posts two through six I showed why Peregrinus should be regarded as the author of the so-called Ignatian letters. In posts seven through eleven I argued that he was an Apellean Christian.

In this post I will tie up some loose ends, adding some thoughts regarding the date of his letters, and taking a somewhat speculative last look at his community, the Apelleans.

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Apelles

Apelles: Canvas Poster Print

Contents of this post

WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?

  • Terminus ante quem
  • Terminus post quem
  • ca 145 CE?
  • Or late 130s?

MODIFYING THE LETTERS: WHEN? WHY? WHO?

  • Between Irenaeus and Origen
  • How did he come by the letters?
  •  The evidence pointing to Theophilus of Antioch

WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEAN GOSPEL?

  •  Basis of the Gospel of John?
  •  Gnostic threads in the Gospel of John
  •  Opposing views of the world in the Fourth Gospel
  •  Why the Gospel’s hostility to the Jews and Judaism
  •  Why no Passover or Baptism in John’s Gospel
  •  The missing Ascension in the Fourth Gospel
  •  Identifying the Paraclete (the mysterious witness to Jesus) : The Holy Spirit or Paul?
  •  Identifying the Beloved Disciple: Paul?
  •  Paul not a persecutor
  •  Paul (“little one”) the boy disciple?
  •  Paul or John?
  •  Affairs at Ephesus and Smyrna

AND WHAT BECAME OF THE APELLEANS?

  •  Identifying the woman taken in adultery?
  •  Returning to the fold

CONCLUSION

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WHEN WERE THE ORIGINAL LETTERS WRITTEN?

Using the chronological indications that Lucian provides in his sketch of Peregrinus, the year of the would-be martyr’s arrest can only be very roughly pegged to have occurred sometime between 130 and 150 CE. (more…)

2013/03/29

The Mysterious John of Revelation

Filed under: Gospel of John,Revelation — Neil Godfrey @ 8:48 pm
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Curiously only one of the five books in the New Testament attributed to John bears the name of John. Many believers and conservative scholars maintain that the Gospel of John, the first, second and third letters of John, were authored by the apostle John despite the author’s name nowhere appearing in those texts.

It is of course the nature of religious history that people will believe it without necessarily having the kind of source-based authentication that generally historians are looking for. And so there is always a tension between what a religious tradition may say about the past and what the historian may say about the past. (Tom Holland, in John Cleary in conversation with Tom Holland, about 26 mins)

And so it goes. Tradition has assigned the name of John to the Gospel and three letters of the New Testament. Perversely, it may seem, the book that does claim to be written by John is one that critical scholars doubt came from the same pen as anything else attributed to John.

A study of the authorship of the Book of Revelation opens up a number of interesting methodological curiosities of New Testament scholarship. But for most part here I will set out the reasons why critical scholars widely believe the book of Revelation is not from the same author, or even “theological school”, responsible for the Gospel of John.

Saint John on Patmos

Saint John on Patmos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Book of Revelation makes unambiguous claims about the identity of its author. It came from God via Jesus Christ who commanded John to write it all down:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John . . . .

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter . . . .

The setting on the isle of Patmos and the identity of an author (or scribe) as a persecuted exile appropriately sets an atmosphere of fear and dread, relieved by a moment of seclusion to be with God alone and to receive his messages uninterrupted. He identifies himself as one of the saints who is being trodden under foot — another motif common to this genre of literature. This is all part of the literary conceit of another Daniel (or any persecuted visionary prophet) being pulled aside by God and struck down to humbly soak up the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms that would leave lesser mortals dead. The setting is as much atmospherics as are the eyes like fire and the seven headed beast. Yet New Testament scholars will so often be found referring to the author being a persecuted exile on Patmos as if this were a veritable fact of history.

A face-value reading guided by the light of church tradition leads many readers concur with the following: (more…)

2013/03/20

Why did Paul need to write letters?

Filed under: Oral Tradition,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 8:03 am

Another provocative (and thought-provoking) Carr-ism, this one recently posted as a comment on Questioning Paul’s Letters. . . .

But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence.

Why did Paul need to write letters? We already know that oral tradition was enough to answer questions by Christians about whether Jesus had turned the water into wine in Galilee or in Jerusalem, and to answer Christian questions about who exactly the 12 disciples were and to answer Christian questions about what Jesus had preached about divorce.

But strangely, as soon as it comes to answering Christian questions about practice in churches or all the other problems that Paul had to deal with, these oral channels suddenly become unavailable, and Paul has to write letters answering these questions. Those problems could not be dealt with by oral transmission.

And as soon as Christians stop asking questions about practice in churches or other stuff Paul deals with, and start to ask questions about what Jesus had told people to pray and whether or not Jesus had preached about giving tithes, these oral channels open up again, and Paul has no longer a need to write letters. Those problems could be dealt with by oral transmission.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Comment by Steven Carr — 2013/03/20 @ 7:53 am

2013/03/12

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (9)

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Wrede: Messianic Secret — Tim Widowfield @ 1:31 pm
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William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 9: Concealment Despite Revelation

This unit continues with the section of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1971 English translation) from pp. 82 through 114, which focuses on the phenomenon of the disciples (and others) seeing or hearing the truth about Jesus but failing to understand that truth.

Jesus with the Twelve(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Jesus with the Twelve
“Are you guys even paying attention?”
(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Where MacDonald went wrong

Somewhat coincidentally, Neil recently posted a piece called “Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity.” In it, he discussed Dennis MacDonald’s contention that the Gospel of Mark at least in part draws upon narrative motifs from the Odyssey, including the necessity of secrecy as the travel-weary protagonist plots to take revenge against “the Suitors.”

According to MacDonald (see Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative), Wrede mistakenly placed the revelation of messiahship at the resurrection, when the actual revelation occurred earlier. He writes:

This understanding of secrecy [i.e., the one for which MacDonald is arguing] deviates from most other interpretations, including Wrede’s, by proposing that the disclosure of the secret takes place not at the empty tomb but at the Sanhedrin trial. (p. 142, emphasis mine)

While I am amenable to his proposal that Mark at times imitates Homer, MacDonald has failed to understand one of the enigmatic features of the messianic secret. For while self-concealment is a core component of the motif, Mark’s gospel also contains a number of instances in which the true identity of Jesus is plainly revealed to the people around him, and yet the secret remains intact.

By that I don’t mean that certain people “in the know” keep his secret. They hear all, but understand nothing. Only the demons seem to understand the full implications of the true nature of Jesus, and they weren’t told, but already knew it, owing to their supernatural existence.

MacDonald is correct about the disclosure of the secret at the Sanhedrin trial. In fact, from a narrative perspective, it is the turning point that inexorably sends Jesus down the path toward crucifixion. However, as we will see, this instance of disclosure resembles previous occurrences in that understanding does not follow revelation.

Scenes of recognition

The scene in the Odyssey in which Telemachus recognizes his father, MacDonald says, bears a strong resemblance to the scene in Mark wherein Peter “recognizes” that Jesus is the Christ. Interestingly, Telemachus first believes he is in the presence of a god and is frightened nearly out of his wits. At the close of both scenes, the protagonist orders silence. MacDonald writes:

(more…)

2013/02/10

Jesus and the Dove — how a Roman audience may have read the Gospel of Mark

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Peppard: Son of God in Roman — Neil Godfrey @ 12:03 am
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SonOfGodRomanWorldThis post presents a snippet from The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context by Michael Peppard. There is much more in this book that deserves closer attention and that will probably be given in the coming year. Till then, I think some of us may be interested in the following.

At one point Peppard “tries to imagine how a listener attuned to Roman culture might understand the dove”, the bird associated* with the Spirit as it descended from heaven at the baptism of Jesus. (Peppard’s approach stands in contrast to most interpretations in that they have sought to explain the dove in terms of Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish traditions.) After discussing bird omens in Roman culture generally, he comes to a survey of the dove in particular. In Roman literature the dove was often regarded as standing in opposition to the eagle, that bird of prey well known as the symbol of Roman imperial power.

Romans Read Omens Like Jews Read Scriptures

One could say that Romans used omens to interpret and explain their experience of the world in analogous ways to how Jews used Scriptures to interpret and explain their experience of the world. (The Son of God in the Roman World, p. 116)

Augur

Augur

There were the official readings of the flights of birds in the quadrants of the sky by colleges of augurs. There were also interpretations of individual flights of birds that were sanctioned by common opinion.

As for the meaning of the dove descending at the baptism of Jesus, Peppard suggests the widely varying views found in the literature are possibly the consequence of scholars failing to study this image within the full range of the cultural milieu of the earliest evangelist and his readers.

Peppard brings forward “the Roman historian and collector of tales” Suetonius. In his several “lives of the emperors” Suetonius speaks of many bird omens, and according to Peppard, they are all related to two themes, “and two only”:

the rise of imperial power and the fall from it. (p. 116) (more…)

2013/02/09

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (8)

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Wrede: Messianic Secret — Tim Widowfield @ 12:03 am
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William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 8: A Different Kind of Messiah? — An astonishingly persistent misconception

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! (credit: Wikipedia)

This unit picks up after our mid-stream break in which we answered the question: “What Is the Messianic Secret?

Restatement of purpose

It is not my main purpose to argue for or against Wrede’s thesis. That isn’t why I’ve embarked on this reading expedition. My reasoning is straightforward: Before we agree or disagree with Wrede, we ought to know what he really said. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, The Messianic Secret had a profound impact on NT scholarship. Yet that impact is mostly misunderstood and largely muffled by scholars and laymen who opine on the subject with only the most cursory reference to the actual source material.

I note with some sadness the historical irony here. Wrede continually asked his fellow scholars to stop ignoring Mark. Instead of asking, “Why did Jesus do that?” we first should ask, “What did Mark mean when he wrote that?” Having learned nothing from The Messianic Secret, scholars now ignore both Wrede and Mark.

The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

A short autobiographical digression

When I left the USAF back in ’92, I ended up working for a consulting company that specialized in information technology (IT) management, and which also dabbled in business process re-engineering (BPR). We became heavily involved in helping the Air Force with the merger of the old AF Systems Command and AF Logistics Command into the combined AF Materiel Command. Specifically, we were to assist them in deciding on a single set of IT standards, methods, processes, etc.

I found myself in the unexpected role of facilitator in round-table discussions, with a group of high-ranking, strong-willed people who had larger-than-life egos. They were all rulers of their fiefdoms, and quite unaccustomed to being told how to run their businesses.

My job was to keep the discussion on an even keel, to make sure everyone contributed to the discussion, and to gently guide the group to a consensus. One of the rules that we followed (and which I enforced) was this: Before anyone could disagree with a previous point, he or she had to restate it to the satisfaction of the person who had made that point. You would be amazed at how well this rule works not only in de-escalating tensions but in saving time.

How does it save time? Well, people don’t hear very well when they think they and their cherished beliefs are under attack. So when Mr. X would speak up and say, “I disagree with Ms. Y, because the real problem with . . .” My job was to say, “Hang on. Explain what Ms. Y said.” Immediately his posture would change. Instead of leaning forward aggressively, he would usually sit back, reflect a moment, and say: “Well, I think she said . . .” The ensuing give-and-take helped to clarify the issues at hand, and more often than not, Mr. X would admit that he had misunderstood Ms. Y. Frequently they found that they were actually in “violent agreement.”

I tell this story to explain why I have such a strong conviction about understanding a work before criticizing it or proposing “better” explanations. The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

“Don’t get the wrong idea about me.”

I almost hate to bring up Bart Ehrman again as a bad example, because it’s starting to look as if we’re unduly picking on him. He is not uniquely wrong at explaining Wrede; in fact in some respects he’s better than most. However, his assessment of the Messianic Secret motif is very instructive with respect to the idea of “different kinds of messiahs.” In his survey textbook, The New Testament, he summarizes Wrede’s thesis. He misses many of the nuances of Wrede’s arguments, but he’s generally accurate.

However, because Ehrman sees the gospel of Mark as an “ancient religious biography” (see Chapter 4), and because he fails to understand that Wrede’s questions are more about Mark, not the historical Jesus, he finishes his assessment by shooting over the heads of Wrede and Mark, offering the following historical explanation to what is essentially a form-critical question:

(more…)

2013/02/01

Myths about Christopher Columbus: Why Would Anybody Make Them Up?

Face Christopher Columbus

The face of Christopher Columbus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What an odd thing to say!*

Recently, while catching up with the second edition of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I noticed something I had missed earlier while reading the chapter on Christopher Columbus. The first time I read the book, now over a decade ago, the grisly stories of conquest and genocide, along with the subsequent whitewash and heroification took center stage. But this time I was struck by the number of myths that at first glance might seem unflattering to Columbus. People inventing stories uncongenial to the hero? How could this be?

History as practiced by NT scholars places a great deal of faith in what can most accurately be described as a thought experiment. That is, if you can’t imagine why anybody would make up a story, then it is probably true.

As Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) puts it:

It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE, p. 236, Nook ed.)

And:

Since Nazareth was a tiny hamlet riddled with poverty, it is unlikely that anyone would invent the story that the messiah came from there. (DJE, p. 219, Nook ed.)

NT scholars find this line of reasoning very compelling. Quoting Ehrman once again, this time from Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (AP):

“Dissimilar” traditions, that is, those that do not support a clear Christian agenda, or that appear to work against it, are difficult to explain unless they are authentic. They are therefore likely to be historical. (AP, p. 92, Oxford paperback ed.)

But how well does this criterion hold up under scrutiny?

From such humble beginnings

Columbus’s origins are obscure. He may have been from Genoa, as your high school history text told you, or he could have been a recently converted Spanish Jew or a Polish heir to the throne. As Loewen notes:

Many aspects of Columbus’s life remain a mystery. He claimed to be from Genoa, Italy, and there is evidence that he was. There is also evidence that he wasn’t: Columbus didn’t seem to be able to write in Italian, even when writing to people in Genoa. (Loewen, p. 48)

The lack of hard facts did not deter Washington Irving from invention. In A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus he constructs a story of humble beginnings from which our hero rises on his own merits. His is the archetypal Great Man. And herein lies the reason for the myth. Irving’s aim was to provide a legendary example to follow. Americans, from humble origins, could achieve greatness if they would simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The humble-origin myth resonates in American history (think of Abe Lincoln as a boy reading by candlelight), but it is also quite common in Biblical legends. Having given up on Saul, God tells Samuel to pick the new anointed king from the sons of Jesse. And so David, the youngest son, a humble shepherd from the village of Bethlehem eventually rises to take the throne.

(more…)

2013/01/16

Paul and “The Ektroma” (Revisited)

Inquisition condemned (Francisco de Goya).

Person hiding face and showing posture of shame (while wearing a Sanbenito and coroza hat) in Goya’s sketch “For being born somewhere else”.  (Francisco de Goya). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Was Paul ashamed of his “claim to knowledge by revelation”?

Ed Jones recently sent me an email in which he once again repeats his view that the text of the Sermon on the Mount we find preserved in Matthew is authentic Jesus-movement tradition, while on the other hand Paul’s letters represent a “Great Mistake.” He writes:

Paul had one abiding problem – as he acknowledged “I was born out of time”; he never met the HJ [Historical Jesus], and thus denied the one indisputable basis for authority, apostolic witness. The best Paul could do was to claim knowledge by revelation. To make sense of this point one needs the get the history straight. Christian Origins and Jewish Christianity are serious misleading misnomers. [The term] “Christian” was first used of Barnabas and Paul’s mission in Antioch [Acts 11:26]; it was never used of the Jesus movement. (Ed Jones)

I have to disagree with at least two of Ed’s assertions. First, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the Acts of the Apostles when it comes to biographical information about Paul. In fact, anyone who argues that the Judean and Galilean followers (i.e., the “disciples”) have a claim on authenticity while Paul was a charlatan should certainly hold the Acts at arm’s length. For here we have an apologetic, late (second-century CE) work that desperately tries to gloss over Peter’s and Paul’s differences while practically erasing James altogether. Moreover, we have no evidence that Paul himself ever used the term “Christian” or for that matter would have even recognized the term. The only other NT book that uses Christian is the first epistle of Peter, also a very late work.

There’s that word again

Second, Paul never said he was “born out of time.” I fear we will never be rid of this awful translation. In 1 Cor. 15:8 Paul said, rather, that he was the ektroma. As I wrote earlier:

This translation masks an unusual word – ἐκτρώματι/ektromati — which refers to a miscarried fetus (ektroma). The untimeliness of the birth does not refer to lateness, but to being born too soon, and presumably means that Paul was calling himself some sort of monster. However, his meaning is far from clear and has long been the subject of debate. (Me)

Lately I’ve been researching the terms “born out of due time” and “ektroma,” and I’m now leaning toward Robert M. Price’s conclusion. But first some thoughts on terminology.

(more…)

2013/01/03

What Is the Messianic Secret?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Wrede: Messianic Secret — Tim Widowfield @ 9:48 am
Tags: ,
The Messianic Secret, William Wrede

The Messianic Secret, William Wrede

Taking a breather

Since more than one person has asked me, I thought it might be best to pause in the middle of my series on Reading Wrede Again for the First Time and state the case clearly and correctly. Given the lack of scholarly comprehension surrounding the motif and Wrede’s analysis of it, I probably should have started with this post. But there’s no sense in crying over water under the bridge.

Upon reflection, “lack of scholarly comprehension” is almost too charitable a description of the state of play. What we have instead is a prime example of “disunderstanding,” which, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts and comments, is the active, deliberate misunderstanding of a point, usually in favor of a straw man argument. It is analogous to the difference between misinformation and disinformation, except rather than a dishonest transmitter we have a dishonest, incompetent, or lazy receiver.

Definitions

The motif in itself is not Wrede’s theory; it is observable evidence. Wrede’s theory is about seeking the best explanation for the presence of the motif.

The Messianic Secret is a motif in Mark’s gospel wherein Jesus exhibits behavior that appears to be aimed at self-concealment. In other words, he seems to be trying to keep the fact that he is the Messiah from the general public. He commands demons to shut up. He tells people not to spread the word about his healing of the sick. He teaches the crowd in riddles, so that they can’t understand him. Moreover, his own disciples fail to comprehend his teaching or his intentions.

By motif we mean a “theme.” It could be a narrative device, a theological contrivance, or a historical theme (i.e., an authentic habit of the historical Jesus preserved in Mark’s tradition). On the surface, we know that it is a literary motif, but only through diligent exegesis can we decide where it came from and what it means. The motif in itself is not Wrede’s theory; it is observable evidence. Wrede’s theory is about seeking the best explanation for the presence of the motif.

By Messianic, Wrede meant “of or pertaining to the Messiah.” But whose definition of Messiah should we use? Wrede was very clear. We must start with Mark, because that’s what we have at hand. If we ignore Mark, we ignore the early Christians for whom he wrote and we replace them with our own historical conjecture and presuppositions (or what NT scholars call “reconstruction”).

Wrede correctly points to Jesus’ confession to the High Priest as evidence to Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ identity. Quoting from the ESV:

14:61b — Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

14:7 — And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

14:8 — And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need?

14:9 — You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

For Mark the titles Christ (Messiah), Son of the Blessed (a circumlocution for God), and Son of Man are all bound up in the identity of Jesus. It is a mistake to apply to Mark a modern notion about discrete aspects of Jesus. So when Wrede’s detractors say the Jesus was hiding his “Sonship” at one point and his “Great Healer” aspect at another, hoping to divide and conquer, they are once again ignoring Mark. They are so intent on proving the historical nature of the Messianic Secret that they take no consideration of Mark’s view of Messiahship.

We continually see scholars wrestle with the problem of the blasphemy verdict, because in Judaism claiming to be the Son of God and Messiah would not mean Jesus claimed to be God or to be equal with God. But that’s not our concern at the moment. What we know from his gospel is that Mark thought calling oneself the Messiah would bring a charge of blasphemy.

(Note: I’ll have more to say about “what kind of Messiah” in a future post.)

By secret, Wrede did not simply mean concealed facts. In German, Geheimnis also connotes “mystery.” We may rightly think of “the Messianic Secret” (das Messiasgeheimnis) broadly as the theme of the (mysterious) concealment of Christ’s true identity in Mark and, to a lesser extent, the other Synoptic Gospels.

We’re just getting started

If you understood only this much and decided to run off and write a refutation of Wrede, it would be as foolish as trying to debunk Sir Isaac Newton when all you know about his theory of gravity is: “It causes objects to fall.”

Hang on. There’s more to it than that.

(more…)

2012/12/21

Questioning Paul’s Letters. Were they really “occasional”? Or rhetorical fictions?

Filed under: Brodie: Beyond Quest,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 1:58 pm
Tags: , ,
Edited with a few minor additions and corrections of lots of typos at 16:16 pm CST (Australia) time, 21st Dec 2012.

I don’t know the answer to those questions in the title. But I have been looking at scholarly arguments that maintain Paul’s letters were, indeed, carefully crafted works of theological instructions that were composed in the form of occasional correspondence. That is, their appearance as spur-of-the-moment letters is a rhetorical fiction.

I have never known what to make of Paul’s letters. There are many reasons for that. But there have always been two reasons I have been at least open to questioning what they seem to be:

  1. rosenmeyerPatricia Rosenmeyer in 2001 published a book, Ancient Epistolary Fictions, demonstrating that the writing of fictional letters was an art form well known and practiced in the literary culture of the era we are talking about. I dot-pointed some of the highlights from her book in an old post of mine, Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions;
  2. I stumbled across a very modern voice from a 1904 publication warning New Testament scholars of the danger of accepting ancient sources at face value or according to their own self-witness, and the need always to demonstrate, never assume, that ancient sources are in fact what we (or even the ancients) think they are:
    • The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself [that is, we need to ask if our earliest references to Paul’s letters base their information or knowledge of those letters on what the letters themselves say, and not from any independent tradition]; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . .

      This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

jerpaulEarlier this month I wrote my first post explaining why Paul’s letter to the Galatians may not have been spontaneously written by a fearful apostle agonizing over the possibility of losing his flock as most readers have always assumed: Sowing Doubt That An Emotional Paul Authored Galatians. Paul’s “spontaneous emotional outburst” may well be seen as an artful reconstruction of passages in Jeremiah. I will have more to say about the literary/theological nature of the “opponents” Paul speaks about in that letter later in this post.

There are many other passages in Paul’s writings that can be explained as being carefully crafted on Old Testament narrative passages and structures. I am currently catching up with one of Richard Hays’ works (The Faith of Jesus Christ) along similar lines, but till I complete that I will point to aspects of Thomas Brodie’s works. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, for example, that we have always taken to be Paul’s response to nasty squabbles within the Corinthian church involving members taking one another to court, may instead be a theological teaching based on, and “spiritualizing”, the teaching of Deuteronomy 1. To give just the bird’s eye overview (avoiding the details for now), we have in both passages (more…)

2012/12/11

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Reviewing chapter 11, Luke’s Sophisticated Re-Use of OT Scriptures

carpenterPrevious posts in this series are archived here. Another review of this chapter can be read at Aaron Adair’s blog.

I liked Ingrid Hjelm‘s chapter, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel”, for several reasons:

  1. it presented the first cogent explanation I have ever encountered for why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s and why it avoided all mention of David’s son Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah;
  2. it explained how a Davidic Messianic figure did not necessarily imply a worldly conqueror (at least not until the last days) but that the OT also contained a nonviolent priestly vision of David who united God’s people as a priestly, Moses-like figure;
  3. it showed how the Gospel of Luke is very much an extension of the same sort of literature that came to make up the Jewish Bible;
  4. it reminded me of the importance of the sacred meaning of numbers among biblical authors, something too easily overlooked today;
  5. it also indirectly prompted possible explanations for why Luke might have adapted and changed the Gospel of Matthew (if he did — but this is really a topic that belongs to another post entirely.)

(But it took some time to grasp what the chapter was about initially. It launches straight into a detailed discussion of details of Matthew’s genealogy and one is immediately wondering, “What the heck is this all about? Was an opening paragraph outlining her argument lost by an editor?” More likely, perhaps, it was cut and paste from other publications by Hjelm yet with insufficient re-editing to clarify the direction of the argument for readers completely new to her views. And there are several passages in the rest of the chapter that leave a reader unfamiliar with the contents of cited references bemused. (Only after tracking down online citations and catching up with some background reading was I able to make sense of some of Hjelm’s statements. Needless to say, some of her claims whose citations are not online remain obscure to me.) Unfortunately this chapter is not the only one in this volume that suffers from this sort of difficulty for those unfamiliar with some of the authors and ideas, — not to mention just a few too many typos. But as you can tell from my positive introduction it was worth making the effort to understand the flow of her argument.)

hjelm

Ingrid Hjelm

Hjelm shows us that the author of the Gospel of Luke interpreted and reused the Old Testament scriptures as a template for his own Gospel story of Jesus in quite subtle and sophisticated ways that are foreign to the ways most modern readers have come to understand the OT. Luke (we’ll imagine the author’s name was Luke) viewed the David figure embodied in Jesus not through the stained history in the books of Samuel, but through the idealized portrait in the books of Chronicles where a priestly David is portrayed as a second Moses, and as such reunites Samaritanism and Judaism once again into the theological ideal of a new Israel.

(I use the term “Judaism” here instead of “Jews” because it is worth keeping in mind what that word “Jew” actually describes at that time: see Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1, Part 2. Hjelm even concludes that Luke was not the gentile convert most readers have assumed him to be, but a Hellenized “Jew”.)

What we see in the Gospel are reiteration and paralleling of the motifs and themes of the older Scriptures. If that sounds a lot like the sort of argument we have come to expect from Thomas L. Thompson, we should not be surprised to find Hjelm is also from the University of Copenhagen and Thompson’s name appears frequently in her list of publications.

There is, of course, much more to be written about the Gospel of Luke’s use of the OT — see, for example, Origin of the Emmaus Road Narrative and More on Luke’s Use of Genesis — but this chapter by Hjelm gives readers an excellent insight into the way the author used Scriptures. Hjelm concludes ambiguously on the question of the implications of Luke’s use of Scriptures for the narrative’s historicity. What really matters is that we understand and accept the nature of the Biblical stories and what they meant for their original creators and audiences.

Against Hjelm’s references to Samaritans as the heritage of Moses in this chapter one should be aware that Ingrid Hjelm clearly has a special interest in Samaritan studies (see her list of publications) and last year was awarded The Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Achievement by the Samaritan community. At one point she justifies the pivotal reference to Samaritans as well as Jews as an allegorical interpretation (Moses represents the Samaritans and Elijah the Jews) by citing an earlier (2004) publication of hers.

42 = the meaning of life*, David & Jesus (more…)

Collins’ Eyewitness source citation

Filed under: John N. Collins,Luke-Acts — Neil Godfrey @ 6:16 am

Expository Times 121.9 (June 2010) 447-52: ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’

The previous post was based on John Collins’ article found via the above link online. I am posting this here because in my initial post my link to this site was not obvious and I only attempted to rectify that after many readers had accessed the article.

2012/12/09

What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?

Filed under: Brodie: Beyond Quest,John N. Collins,Luke-Acts — Neil Godfrey @ 10:08 pm

The Gospel of Luke begins with words that many have understood to be an assurance that its narrative is based on the firsthand eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus for themselves. Here is Craig S. Keener‘s rendition of Luke 1:1-2

. . . many have sought to complete a narrative of the acts fulfilled in our midst, just as those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the message have from the beginning transmitted them orally to us. (from the header to chapter 10, “The Gospels’ Oral Sources”, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 139)

Keener captures the meaning Richard Bauckham imputes to the term “eyewitnesses” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

The autoptai [eyewitnesses] are simply firsthand observers of the events. (p. 117)

Now . . . we have discovered how important was the notion of an eyewitness who was qualified to tell the whole gospel story by virtue of participation in it from beginning to end . . . . (p. 124)

John N. Collins, in a 2010 Expository Times article, ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’ on the other hand, has cogently argued that the term translated “eyewitnesses” in Luke 2 almost certainly means something quite different from this widely-embraced view, and after 2 1/2 years Richard Bauckham has still to find time to respond. One scholar who has noticed Collins’ article is Thomas L. Brodie. He cites it six times in Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (For info on John Collins see his details at the end of his review on Catholica.)

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collins closely examines the context of the word for eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2 and concludes it refers to officers of long-standing in the Christian community. At this point it is important to recall the opening words of Luke’s preface:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled [peplērophorēmenōn] among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you [NRSV]

Given that the opening verses are about literary activity, and the close association of the “autoptai” with “servants”, Collins further concludes that their role was related to the authentication of the documents accumulated from those many literary endeavours.

The word in question is found only once in the New Testament so there are no other biblical comparisons that can assist us with its meaning. The essence of Collins’ argument follows. (In all quotations the bolding is my own, not original.)

Eyewitnesses are also the Servants of the Word “From the Beginning”

First, Collins draws attention to the word order of the Greek. He sets out the above NRSV translation the following word order to reflect the Greek:

the from beginning eyewitnesses and servants being of the word

Servants and eyewitnesses are bracketed as a unit between “the” and “being/genomenoi“. It is clear that the two terms, eyewitnesses and servants, are to be understood as the one and same group with the same dual functions — eyewitnessing and serving — from the beginning. (more…)

2012/12/01

Sowing Doubt That An Emotional Paul Authored Galatians

jerpaulM. Weinfeld can argue for OT books from Joshua to 2 Kings were produced by a Deuteronomic school, K. Stendhal can argue that the Gospel of Matthew was produced by a school “of St Matthew”, (and I’ll be posting again on reasons to believe “Luke” was part of “a school”), ditto for the Johannine writings, and Philip Davies can argue that the prophetic books of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Micah, and the rest) were produced by scribal schools who wrote in dialogue with one another, so why can we not imagine the possibility that the letters of Paul, all of them, were also produced by a school (or schools) rather than a single individual, whether that individual was attributed the name of Paul in honesty or duplicity.

It’s just a thought-experiment. I am willing to take it up because I think that the argument that Paul really wrote certain letters because they reflect a certain personality and loose way of thinking are naive and circular. Not that I reject the historicity of Paul. I don’t. But I don’t “believe” in his historicity, either. I simply don’t know. I find a lot of merit in Roger Parvus’s argument that the name Paul was attributed to hide the identity of an earlier first century author of several of the letters. I can acknowledge Earl Doherty’s argument against the letters being composed in the second century by Marcionites. Then again, Bruno Bauer who disputed the historicity of Paul was no dim-wit, either. Moreover, I am always conscious of Patricia Rosenmeyer’s study of ancient letter writing that demonstrated that the most realistic touches in letters are not necessarily signs of authenticity. And many if not most scholars, it seems, are quite willing to admit that at least some of the letters written in Paul’s name belong to a Pauline school of some sort. So I’m open to the question of the provenance of the letters attributed to Paul.

But probably every commentator on Paul’s letter to the Galatians I have read has gone along with the assumption that that letter’s expressions of frustration, anger, hostility are sure signs of a personal author’s personality quaking through the pages. Clearly none of them read Rosenmeyer, but let’s leave her work on epistolary fictions aside for now. Let’s look instead at an observation Thomas Brodie has made in Birthing of the New Testament.

That’s the kind of man Paul was

Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, once said he liked to rattle people’s cages, because seeing someone rattled helps you meet the real person. So when Paul suddenly becomes angry in Galatians and calls the people stupid (literally, ‘mind-less’, without nous, a-noetas, Gal. 3:1) you feel this is the real thing. And when he repeats it a little later the effect is even stronger: ‘Are you so stupid?’ (Gal. 3.3). OK, so that’s the kind Paul was. (p. 141, Beyond the Quest)

That’s the verdict of most of us who have read Galatians. But Brodie then introduces a challenge.

He suggests that if we look more closely at Galatians, and then cast our minds back over what we have read in the Old Testament books, in particular Jeremiah, and take a fresh look at that book — in particular in the Septuagint or Greek version, we will see something very similar. Jeremiah also calls the people mindless, then repeats the accusation for intensified effect (Jer. 5.21, 23).

Galatians is not raw emotion. It contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah.

Jeremiah in Galatians (more…)

2012/11/29

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (7)

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Wrede: Messianic Secret — Tim Widowfield @ 7:15 am

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 7: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — The injunctions to keep the Messianic secret

This unit continues Part 1, Section 2 (p. 34ff.) of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (covering other features of the motif and the defense of a single coherent theory).

Demons in retrospect

Jesus Confronts Demons

Last time in Part 6 we finished up Wrede’s discussion of the demons’ recognition of the Messiah. At this point, we should probably mention why Wrede wrote about exorcisms first. And here, once again, I will refer to James D.G. Dunn’s 1970 paper, “The Messianic Secret in Mark” (PDF).

I rather suspect that Wrede was misled by taking the exorcisms as his starting point. It was natural that a nineteenth/twentieth century man should fasten on to these incidents which were to him among the most bizarre and incredible, and which for that very reason gave him immediate access to the theological viewpoint of the primitive Church — that is, to the way the primitive Church had viewed and worked over the historical facts. No psychological argument could explain how, for example, the Gerasene demoniac came to hail Jesus as Son of the Most High God, and recourse to a supernatural explanation was unacceptable. Therefore, Wrede concluded, we are in the presence of a legendary development in the tradition which leads us straight into the heart of the Messianic secret. Leaving aside the issue of demon possession and the possibility of supernatural knowledge, which I personally hold to be a far more open question than Wrede allowed, it still seems to me that Wrede’s approach was methodologically suspect. (p. 97 of the Journal, p. 6 of the PDF, bold emphasis mine)

Dunn thinks Wrede latched onto the stories of demonic possession (1) because they were “bizarre and incredible” and (2) because they give modern, critical scholars a window on the “theological viewpoint of the early church.” Yet Dunn is suspicious of Wrede’s methodology. Why would that be? Dunn is intimating that Wrede’s post-Enlightenment, scientific, naturalistic biases drew his focus to the exorcism stories, and that these biases further clouded his judgment, causing him to overstate his case.

(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…)

2012/11/23

Why Some Scholars Accept the Independence of John’s Gospel

Filed under: Gospel of John — Tim Widowfield @ 4:25 pm
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Recently, while reading Dwight Moody Smith’s John Among the Gospels, I came upon a reference to an interesting book by Hans Windisch. Long out of print and never translated into English, Windisch’s seminal work, Johannes und die Synoptiker (John and the Synoptics: Did the Fourth Evangelist Want to Complement or Replace the Older Gospels? [1926]), stands as one of the earliest and most complete arguments for the Displacement theory. It’s odd that so many important critical twentieth-century works from the continent either never made it into English or were translated decades later.

Hans Windisch (1881-1935)

I’ve ordered Windisch’s book and expect it to arrive in a few days. In the meantime, I’ve been scouring the web for references to Windisch and the Displacement theory, hoping to find out more. This search has led me to several other promising titles. For example, Steven A. Hunt’s Rewriting the Feeding of the Five Thousand, a recently published book that merits consideration (were it not for its astonishingly high price tag), explores the ways in which the fourth evangelist re-imagined the well-known picnic pericope.

The road to independence

Both Moody’s and Hunt’s works recapitulate the history of scholarship regarding John’s relationship to the Synoptics. Moody, of course, has much more detail; in fact Hunt cheerfully acknowledges Moody in his introductory chapter. Traditionally, of course, Christian scholars had espoused the Supplementation theory — the idea that John knew the three earlier gospels and merely intended to add to them. Beginning with Reimarus, scholars began to view only the Synoptics as containing useful historical information, while John represented a wholly theological work written by the early church “from faith to faith.”

Hence, John became thought of as independent of the Synoptics, but essentially not historical. Early in the twentieth century scholars, especially C.H. Dodd, turned the Independence theory on its head. Yes, John is independent, they said; however the fourth evangelist’s independence of the Synoptics proves the author relied on a different, separate, authentic historical tradition.

(more…)

2012/11/22

The Star of Bethlehem — the “common-sense view”

Filed under: Gospel of Matthew — Neil Godfrey @ 5:47 pm
Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology by Tim Hegedus. (I learned of the book through fortuitous serendipity via astrotheology supporters who describe the book as “a good one”, though their view appears to be based on the cover description alone. It doesn’t do anything to support astrotheology. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I agree it is an interesting book. I had a chance to catch up with it at the University of Queensland library yesterday.)

[The Magi] ask for “the newborn king of the Jews” whose star they have seen “at its rising” (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) (v. 2, cf. v. 9). (This translation is preferable to “in the east” of older versions [so KJV and RSV], which would be properly ἐν [ταῖς] ἀνατολαῖς.)

The statement of the Magi is not a reference to a time of day, but rather is calendrical (cf. the phrase “the time of the star’s appearing” [τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος] in 2.7): “rising” means the star’s heliacal rising, i.e. the first time in the year that it was visible rising ahead of the sun before dawn. The usual technical term for this was έχιτολῇ but ἀνατολῇ could be used for the heliacal rising as well; the latter seems to be the case in Matt 2.2.

According to the narrative, the heliacal “rising” of the star held significance for the Magi as an astrological omen. It was this more ancient form of astrology, rather than horoscopic astrology, in which the Magi were engaged.

A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would have been interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. However, Molnar’s conclusions are overly sophisticated: there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather, the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a “natal star” which appears at their birth and passes away with them, a belief according to the elder Pliny was commonly held among the general population. (more…)

2012/11/16

Why the Gospel of John Depicted John the Baptist So Differently

Filed under: Gospel of John,Gospel of Mark,John the Baptist — Neil Godfrey @ 10:08 pm
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John the Baptist is almost unrecognizable in the Gospel of John to those who have known him only from the Synoptic Gospels.

Apart from the Gospel of John’s Baptist never baptizing Jesus, (and apart from the possibility that in John’s Gospel Jesus himself uniquely does some baptizing for a time), one major difference between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics is that in the latter there is a clearly laid out sequence while in John’s Gospel Jesus and John work alongside each other.

The reason that the Gospel of John treats John the Baptist so differently from the way he is depicted in the Synoptics is, I suggest, because that sequential pattern in the Synoptics implies something about the nature of Jesus that the last evangelist flatly rejected. So this post looks firstly at what that sequence implies about Jesus and that might have been at odds with the theology or Christology of the Fourth Gospel.

In the Gospel of Mark, first John the Baptist appears to Israel; John is then imprisoned; only then does Jesus appears to Israel. In the Gospel of John, however, John the Baptist and Jesus are carrying out their respective baptizing ministries in tandem. The only difference is that the followers of Jesus are increasing while those of John are diminishing. So the Baptist is said to explain:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)

That’s not how it is in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark a sequence is clear. First John the Baptist, then Jesus who announces the Kingdom of God, then (we must wait for it) the Kingdom of God is about to arrive (at hand). (more…)

2012/11/13

John’s Wedding at Cana — Chronicle or Parable?

The Wedding at Cana (1820)

The Wedding at Cana (1820) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Gospel without Parables?

We all know the standard line: the synoptic evangelists tell us that Jesus’ ministry heavily relied on parables, while the Fourth Gospel contains none. It’s a striking conundrum. However, for a long time now I’ve been considering the possibility that John is itself entirely a parable gospel.

That is to say, each pericope may stand primarily as an allegorical story, regardless of whether it is based on historical events. The story of Jesus changing the water into wine, for example, seems to contain so many obvious references — narrative points and objects that have direct theological allusions — that resemble the parables in the other gospels.

Rudolf Bultmann in The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971, pp. 114-121) counsels us not to overstate the significance of the water as referring to baptism, blood, or the new covenant. On the other hand, F.F. Bruce writes:

Jesus’ action was, in C. S. Lewis’s terminology, a ‘miracle of the old creation’: the Creator who, year by year, turns water into wine, so to speak, by a natural process, on this occasion speeds up the process and attains the same end. But if it is a miracle of the old creation, it is a parable of the new creation. (p. 45, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, emphasis mine)

John as “Megaparable”

If Bultmann gave us a red light, Bruce at least changed that light to amber. Earlier this year in The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan changed it to full-on green. He subtitles chapter 10: “The Parable Gospel according to John,” writing:

John interprets all the physical or restorative miracles of Jesus as symbolic of what God is in Jesus rather than of what God does in Jesus. Look back, for example, at John 4 and note how physical drinking in 4:7-15 and physical eating in 4:31-38 become spiritual symbols of Jesus. Or, again, do you really think that Cana was just about wine? (Kindle location 3748, bolding mine)

(more…)

2012/11/04

The Gospel of John as a Unified Work

Read almost any commentary on the Gospel of John and one learns that the conventional wisdom is that this Gospel is littered with sure signs that it has been pieced together over time by several authors, revisers or editors. One of the most obvious indicators of this strikes most readers when they read the speeches of Jesus at the Last Supper. He interrupts himself to say, “Arise, let us go from here”, but instead of going anywhere he merely continues with another lengthy monologue. “No doubt” we are reading the results of clumsy editing.

Look at the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. Surely here we see another indication of an editor clumsily stitching a speech about being born again into pre-existing scene between Jesus and the Pharisee. Nicodemus starts the conversation easily enough but then Jesus appears rudely to ignore his words and launches immediately into a jarring proclamation about his need to be born again.

And what are readers to make of that apparently meaningless reference to the time of day — “it was about the tenth hour” — when the first disciples of Jesus are said to go to the place where Jesus was staying?

One moment Jesus is in Jerusalem, and the next, without any explanation, he is suddenly in Galilee again.

Surely only a committee of editors working independently over time could have produced such a disjointed work.

Not so, says Thomas L. Brodie in his 625 page volume, The Gospel According to John: A Literary and Theological Commentary. (more…)

‘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…)

2012/11/01

Hans Dieter Betz and Norman Perrin: The Sermon on the Mount and the Historical Jesus

Filed under: Betz: Essays on Sermon Mount,Gospel of Matthew,Norman Perrin — Tim Widowfield @ 4:54 pm
Sermon on the Mount - Brancoveanu Moƒnastery

Sermon on the Mount – Brancoveanu Monastery (Photo credit: Fergal of Claddagh)

At Ed Jones’ urging, a few of months ago I purchased Essays on the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of papers by Hans Dieter Betz. While reading chapter 4, “A Jewish-Christian Cultic Didache in Matt. 6:1-18: Reflections and Questions on the Historical Jesus” (p. 55), I was alerted to Norman Perrin’s Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. Betz cites this book as a landmark work in the quest to determine the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings.

I started reading Perrin’s book and came upon a citation of T.W. Manson’s The Sayings of Jesus, which I naturally had to order. Perrin praises this work despite Manson’s denial of form criticism, which surely hobbled his efforts (or at least led him to untenable conclusions). Manson’s book will no doubt lead me to other sources. And so it goes.

I promised Ed I’d have something to say about Betz, the Sermon on the Mount, and the historical Jesus. That’s what this post is about.

The mini-didache in Matthew

Betz’s essay analyzes a series of complex and intricately structured teachings of Jesus found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We should resist calling this set of instructions a group of “sayings”; Betz shows the intricate, multilayered framework indicates a fairly long literary phase between the written gospel and the (presumed) oral tradition. For example, we can clearly see the difference between an early set of instructions (Matt. 6:1-6) that appear to conform well to Judaism and a later insertion (Matt. 6:7-15) that appears to have come from the Jewish Diaspora.

Betz demonstrates the difference by painstakingly examining the structure of what he calls a didache, using the title of a well-known work from early Christianity. He cites Rudolf Bultmann, who commented that these “rules of piety” resemble a church catechism. At first glance, it may seem as if they’re a series of simple “don’t do that — do this” rules, but they’re far more complex than that.

(more…)

2012/10/04

The Gospel of John as a Source for the Historical Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 9

Page 11 of the Introduction to ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ explains that one of hopes of its collection of essays

is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity [of Jesus] 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.

I understand that to mean that the book will introduce readers to a discussion of the question of the historicity of Jesus and a related construction of a history of Christian origins. All chapters till now have addressed this question from a range of perspectives.

So it is with disappointment that I finish reading chapter 9 without any further insights into the question of Jesus’ historicity or any further introduction to discussions of methods and interpretations that impinge upon the historicity of Jesus. James Crossley at no point raises the question of Jesus’ historicity (except in passing to mention the names of Thomas Thompson, Robert Price and Richard Carrier as the raising their voices through the Jesus Project to this effect.)

Crossley’s chapter belongs with a publication that takes the historicity of Jesus for granted and that lacks any interest in challenging that assumption. It is entirely about the value of the Gospel of John as a source — compared with the Synoptic Gospels — for scholars who are seeking to reconstruct the historical Jesus.

The Introduction to this volume in fact gives a most adequate synopsis of Crossley’s argument. This is available online at The Bible and Interpretation site. Scroll down to the subheading “The Rewritten Bible” to locate it. But if you’re too lazy to do that here is a copy of the relevant section, but I have broken the single paragraph up for easier reading: (more…)

2012/09/30

Was Paul’s Jesus an Historical Figure? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 8

Filed under: Paul and his letters,Thompson: Not the Carpenter? — Neil Godfrey @ 5:00 pm

The eight chapter of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is “Born under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles” by Thomas S. Verenna. He takes those passages commonly used to support the claim that Paul’s Jesus was indeed an historical person — his crucifixion, being “born of a woman, born under the law”, being of the seed of David, passing on the teaching of the Last Supper, and Paul meeting James known to be the “brother of the Lord” — and attempts to argue that all these references by Paul are best understood as derived from his interpretations of the Jewish scriptures and/or have spiritual as opposed to earthly-historical meanings. In his introduction Verenna explains that his argument will be based on reading Paul “intertextually” — that is, he will interpret these passages through Paul’s pre-Gospel “cultural milieux” and his literary training in “the practice of [“imitation”] and [emulation]”.

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Preliminary remarks

Verenna begins with an extensive set of “preliminary remarks” that I encapsulate here:

  • Most scholars believe Paul understood his Jesus to have been a historical person but he did not elaborate on the biography of this Jesus because his interest was in the meaning of the present heavenly Jesus to his converts.
  • Verenna will argue that, on the contrary, Paul never believed his Jesus was historical, and that Paul’s Jesus was crafted entirely from the Jewish Scriptures. Paul accomplished this by the well-known ancient literary practice (and Jewish tradition) of re-writing earlier literature.
  • Paul’s Jesus is “an allegorical” figure taken from Scriptures. (p. 133)
  • Since “Christianity” is a second century designation it is incorrect to say Paul converted to Christianity: he “converted to a sect of Judaism” from within which he used Scriptures to argue for his understanding of “the coming of . . . the suffering servant and redeemer.” (p. 134)
  • Scholar’s (e.g. Crossan’s) attempts to argue that Paul used Scripture to interpret historical events are based on “assumptions rather than . . . on an unbiased investigation of the state of the evidence.” (p. 134)
  • “Ancient literary traditions [meaning in particular “imitation/imitatio” or (Greek) “mimesis” and “aemulatio/emulation”] have a large part to play in Paul’s interpretation of Scripture”.

After establishing these points Verenna serves us with a “Brief Overview of Methods” as part of these preliminaries before moving on to the body of his article:

  • This chapter’s goal is to present an alternative to the current consensus (and readers are asked to keep in mind that scholarly trends change and that consensuses come and go);
  • This chapter will buck against the current and past tendencies to interpret Paul through all we believe to be historically true about Jesus through the Gospels, and (as above) attempt to interpret him through a pre-Gospel and pre-Christian “cultural milieux” — and as one educated in both the literary practices and the Jewish Scriptures of his day;
  • Verenna promises to investigate the epistles “within the socio-cultural framework” that is supposedly ignored by modern scholarship that spends more effort looking at the historical Jesus in Paul’s letters and about whom Paul does not express interest. This will mean Verenna will dwell upon the “esotericism” (that fills Paul’s letters) in the context of the literary custom of “emulation” — and thereby show that Paul’s conceptions of Jesus pre-dated the Gospel view of Jesus. (p. 136)
  • Two literary traditions that Verenna will dwell on in particular as having special relevance for interpreting Paul’s references to Jesus are “emulation” and “imitatio“.
    • Emulation, in this study, means establishing intertextuality; this investigation will be combining several disciplines in order to make a strong case for intertextual references in Paul’s epistles. . . . .
    • “That imitatio was part of a students’ (sic) education is well-established. And it is a well-accepted perspective that earlier literature was emulated wholly by authors in the Greco-Roman period. To quote Thomas Brodie, ‘Virgil did not just allude to Homer; he swallowed him whole.'” (p. 137)
  • We need to keep in mind that Paul, being a Jew, did not depart from the interpretative practices of his fellow Jews in interpreting Scriptures — “innovative readings which disclose truth previously latent in scripture”. (p. 138)

Definitions

Unfortunately Verenna is not clear about what he means by “both the practice of [imitation] and [emulation/rivalry]” that he says he will use to explain Paul’s references to Jesus. This may be confusing for the uninformed reader who is not aware that imitation and emulation are not two separate literary practices but that emulation is simply one specific type of imitation. (more…)

2012/09/23

Mark’s Parables as Simonian Allegories

Filed under: Christian origins,Gospel of Mark,Roger Parvus — Roger Parvus @ 12:05 pm
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AN ATTEMPT TO VIEW MARK’S PARABLES FROM THE INSIDE

Samuel Sandmel, in his The Genius of Paul (link is to full-text online), made this observation:

The parable of the sower in Mark (and in Matthew and Luke) is so presented in the Gospels as to have us believe that, clear as it was, the disciples did not understand it and they require explanation in private. The Gospel would have us suppose that there was more in the parable than meets the eye. Unhappily, there is not. The same is true in page after page of the Gospels. (p. 214)

Mark’s presentation of the parable of the sower does hint quite loudly that there is more to it and its gospel (“all things”, Mk. 4:11) than meets the eye. Its author asserts that his Jesus deliberately hid his meaning from those “on the outside”. And even though he makes his Jesus give a “private” explanation of the parable, his letting any and every reader and hearer of the narrative have access to that explanation shows that the beans have really not been spilled at all. Furthermore, he warns us that just reading or hearing the parable and its explanation will not be much help, for there are many who “look and see but do not perceive, hear and listen but do not understand” (Mk. 4:12). And he drives that point home in the rest of his gospel by relating how the Twelve themselves—even after being given their private explanation—still failed to perceive or understand.

To know what if anything is hidden [in the parables], one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel.

But I think that Sandmel is wrong to rule out that there is really something more below the surface. To know what if anything is hidden there, one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel. And, unfortunately, the provenance of Mark’s Gospel has never been securely determined.

I have explained in comments on a few other Vridar posts* why I think the Markan insider circle was Simonian, i.e., composed of followers of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria. As I see it, canonical Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of a Simonian gospel, urMark, that sometime between the end of the first century and 130 CE was put together using two components:

  1. an earlier succinct myth about a divine figure, the Son of God, who briefly descended to this world to trick the princes of this world into wrongfully crucifying him. He did this by transforming himself and surreptitiously switching places, as Simon Kyrenaios, with a failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion. To this was prefaced
  2. a cryptic allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria.

The seam between the two parts is Mk. 15:15, the release of the Son of the Father (Barabbas).

That a Simonian would compose such a two-part life of the Son of God was fitting, for Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son “who seemed to suffer in Judaea” (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, 6, 19).

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. . . . If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide?

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. I assume— just to show where it can plausibly lead—that my identification of the insiders as Simonians is correct, and I examine how that identification changes our perspective of the parables in chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel.

I attempt to answer the questions: If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide? What was it they wanted outsiders to see but not perceive, hear but not understand?

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Hippolytus, in a few short chapters of his The Refutation of All Heresies (which I will abbreviate, going forward, as RAH), describes the teaching of Simon of Samaria as it was presented by his Great Proclamation (the Apophasis Megale). Hippolytus’ exposition, short as it is, is the fullest explanation of Simon’s system that is extant. It provides enough, I submit, to reveal what the Markan parables are really about. The translation of the RAH I will use is that of G.R.S. Mead in his Simon Magus (link is to full-text online). (more…)

2012/09/17

Paul: Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

 

Chapter 7 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ presents what I understand are the arguments of mainstream New Testament scholarship that Paul’s epistles testify to the existence of an historical Jesus. Its author, Mogens Müller (MM), is responsible for what has been praised as the best work to date on the expression “Son of Man”. He is also a leader in a project undertaking a new look at the relationship among the canonical Gospels that extends to recognizing their place in the wider Gospel literature, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels. In this chapter he places the Gospel of Luke around 120-130, which is interesting, and not very far from views often expressed on this blog, though I suspect MM’s reasons would be to some extent different from my own. His view that the synoptic gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke — are successive stages of theological and narrative development surfaces regularly in this chapter. (I also like the look of his book The First Bible of the Church: A Plea for the Septuagint.)

This is the irony one encounters when reading many New Testament scholars’ works. There is so much that is so interesting and thought-provoking. But when it comes to addressing the historicity of Jesus one is struck by the way the reader is asked to accept tenuously justified assumptions and sometimes what looks at least to this layman like circuitous reasoning. So my bias will show in what follows.

MM argues that the primary evidence for the historicity of Jesus is the impact such a figure had on believers after his death. (more…)

2012/09/06

The historical Jesus in Paul? For and (mostly) Against

Robert Price includes a packed selection of arguments commonly raised to affirm Paul’s awareness of the teachings of Jesus along with the counterarguments. Little of this is new to many readers, but it seems appropriate to list the details as a sequel to my previous post that covered the main thrust of his argument in his chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’

But first, I’ll cover the evidence he piles up in response to two reasons often given to explain why we don’t find explicit references to Jesus’ life and teaching in the letters. Price is collating these from G. A. Wells’ The Jesus of the Early Christians. (As Earl Doherty has further noted, the argument becomes even stronger when it is realized it applies not only to Paul’s writings but to the entire corpus of New Testament epistles.)

Jesus’ biographical details were irrelevant to the matters that happened to arise in occasional letters

Although I have encountered this assertion many times I have never seen it demonstrated. Without demonstration the statement becomes a mere brushing-aside of a serious question.

On the other hand, one readily finds cases raised that do support the counter-claim. Price several the following from Wells’ early book. It’s easy to make a list of these here as I do below, but that is only for the sake of information. What really counts is some way to test the alternative hypotheses. Before reading the list it is a good idea to do two things.

  1. One, think through what one would expect to find in the data IF there were oral traditions making the rounds that relayed what Jesus was supposed to have said and done.
  2. Two, think through what we would expect IF sayings were imputed to Jesus by various churches to add authority to their customs or teachings. (This was the conclusion of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann.)

In other words, ask what each hypothesis predicts we will find. It’s a while since I’ve posted on Richard Carrier’s Bayesian theory and when I resume (I still hope to resume posting on his book) the next post will discuss the importance of testing the hypotheses that oppose your own. The best way to strengthen your own argument, Carrier points out, is to demonstrate the inadequacies of those of your opponents. (This, by the way, is one reason I am slow on the uptake with theories of Christian origins that are heavy on proofs or arguments for their own point of view but almost totally ignore alternative explanations. Think of the caricature of the boy who looks only for hints that a girl likes him but ignores all evidence that points to a different state of affairs.)

So it always pays to be slightly more generous to the arguments for the side you are against if you want to demonstrate their comparative inadequacy to your own. Of course, there is always a risk that you’ll end up not being quite so dogmatic for one point of view as when you started, but life is full of risks.

The following points are from Price’s/Wells’ list. Presentation and commentary are my own. (more…)

2012/08/25

Understanding Mark’s Jesus through Philo’s Moses?

Filed under: Burton Mack,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:33 pm
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The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) b...

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) by Raphael. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I posted an introduction to Burton Mack’s and Earle Hilgert’s suggestion that the pre-Passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark has striking affinities with Philo’s first volume of On the Life of Moses. I have since caught up with more of the background reading to their argument, but I have also taken their suggestions further and wonder if there is a plausible case to be made that the evangelist was influenced by Philo’s account of Moses in the way he portrayed the character and roles of Jesus through his teaching and controversial exchanges with others. This post is exploratory. The views expressed are in flux.

But I must address one point in particular before continuing. Some people reject any argument that a gospel’s narrative content was imitating or influenced by other specific literature on the grounds that it is possible to argue for influences or imitations of more than one other literary source. It is not difficult to find places where the Gospel of Mark has adapted tales from the Old Testament (e.g. Jesus’ call of the disciples being modeled on Elijah’s call of Elisha; the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead owing much to Elisha’s raising of the Shunammite’s son.) But we have also recently seen a study that argues for the influence of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. Is it not going too far to bring in yet another source into the mix? Spectres of “parallelomania” are raised. But this objection is ill-informed. Thomas L. Brodie in The Birthing of the New Testament demonstrates that it was common practice for authors of the time to draw upon and assimilate multiple sources in their composition of new works. (This will be addressed in a future post.)

Start with the Transfiguration

Mark’s transfiguration scene is teasingly alike yet unlike the biblical scenes of Moses atop Mount Sinai. (more…)

2012/08/23

IS PAUL THE BELOVED DISCIPLE?

Twenty years ago the late Michael Goulder wrote an article in which he argued that Paul was the Fourth Gospel’s Beloved Disciple (“An Old Friend Incognito,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 1992, Vol. 45, pp. 487-513). It is no secret that the Fourth Gospel’s Jesus is very different from the Synoptic one. Goulder proposed that its Beloved Disciple too is a very different version of a disciple we all know and love: Paul.

Michael Goulder

According to Goulder’s hypothesis:

John was writing round the turn of the century, and had not known Paul personally. He did know at least some of the Pauline letters which we have; and he inferred from them, reasonably but erroneously, that Paul had been one of the Twelve Apostles. He also inferred from them that Paul had been present at the Last Supper, the Passion and the Resurrection. He found reason for thinking that Paul had been loved by Jesus; but his reconstruction was met with so much incredulity that he felt obliged to keep his hero incognito. (pp. 495-96).

Thus, according to Goulder, it was a misunderstanding of certain Pauline passages that led the author of the Fourth Gospel to form a conception of Paul quite different from the one in the Acts of the Apostles.

  • The scholar suggested that the very expression “the disciple that Jesus loved” may owe its origin to a mistaken understanding of Gal. 2:20: “But the life that I now live in the flesh, I live in faith in the Son of God, who loved me . . .
  • And he noted how easily one could have wrongly inferred from the words of 1 Corinthians 9:1 (“Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”) that Paul, like the other apostles, had met and received his call to apostleship from Jesus during the time of the Lord’s public ministry.

One particularly interesting example brought forward by Goulder was 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff. (“For I received from the Lord, what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed, took bread etc.”). Goulder showed that the Fourth Gospel’s peculiar Eucharistic scenario could have plausibly arisen from a misidentification of the two occasions referred to by the 1 Corinthians passage, to wit:

“I received from the Lord” when I reclined on his breast at the Last Supper . . .  “that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was betrayed” after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, “took bread etc.”

In the Fourth Gospel the Beloved Disciple was present at the Last Supper, but there is no indication given that he was present at the earlier event. And in that gospel it is implied that it was at that earlier event—the Feeding in Jn. 6—that Jesus instructed his followers to observe a eucharistic eating and drinking. His eucharistic discourse is given on that occasion and, correspondingly, there is no eucharist celebrated at the Johannine Last Supper. Thus the Beloved Disciple would have learned from Jesus at the Last Supper what had transpired after the earlier event, the Feeding of the Multitude. (more…)

2012/08/20

33. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 33 (Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus)

Filed under: Earl Doherty,Ehrman: Did Jesus Exist?,Jesus — Earl Doherty @ 1:00 am
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Ehrman’s Picture of the Apocalyptic Jesus

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • Preaching the kingdom
  • Differing teachings of Jesus and Paul
  • Jesus and the Jewish Law
  • Salvation: by following the Law or believing in Jesus?
  • Last Judgment and End of the world
  • Jesus’ miracle-working
  • Jesus’ associates and disciples
  • Believing in Judas Iscariot
  • Did Jesus aspire to be king in the coming kingdom?
  • Jesus in the Temple
  • Jesus before Pilate

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The Apocalyptic Proclamation of Jesus

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 305-331)

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Having concluded that Jesus not only existed but was an apocalyptic prophet, Ehrman now embarks on a lengthy discussion of what we can assign to Jesus from the Gospels on the basis of that conclusion. It is characterized by a high degree of naivete as to what can be depended on in the evangelists’ or Q’s presentations, with contradictions proceeding from that naïve dependence largely ignored.

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Preaching repentance and the imminence of the Kingdom

Much of what Ehrman ascribes to Jesus can reasonably be seen as the message of the kingdom-preaching community itself. Mark’s opening words for Jesus (1:15),

The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.

are mundane enough to be placed in any prophetic mouth of the first century. Q2, in fact, attributes similar sentiments to John the Baptist as the originator of such preaching, in a context of no inclusion of Jesus. In fact, note Q’s description of the beginning of the movement:

Jan Brueghel the Elder, John the Baptist preaching

Jan Brueghel the Elder, John the Baptist preaching (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until John, it was the law and the prophets; since then, there is the good news of the Kingdom of God, and everyone forces his way in. [Lk./Q 16:16]

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men are seizing it. [Mt. 11:12]

As I say in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.347):

. . . When the saying first originated, we can safely regard it as the community looking back over its history; the implied time scale is too great for it to be claimed as an authentic saying of Jesus, or one accorded to him, commenting on the brief span of his own ministry to date. This is Q’s picture of the past, a past of years, perhaps decades. Placing it in Jesus’ mouth has proven problematic. [We might note here that such things indicate the later introduction of a Jesus figure, at which placing the community’s own sayings into his mouth has created some anomalies.]

According to the saying, before the preaching of John the Baptist—now looked upon as a forerunner or mentor to the community’s own—the study of scripture formed the prevailing activity and source of inspiration. Now a new movement is perceived to have arisen at the time of John: the preaching of the coming kingdom of God, and it had inaugurated an era of contention. But why would Jesus himself not have been seen in this role? Surely the Q community would have regarded his ministry as the turning point from the old to the new. The saying would almost certainly have formed around him. At the very least, Jesus would have been linked with John as representing the time of change.

Yet another indicator of the later invention of a founder Jesus. These anomalies, if recognized at all, were not perceived as troublesome by later Q redactors and were left standing; they simply had new understandings read into them.

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Disjunction between Jesus and Paul (more…)

2012/08/19

Bruno Bauer (through Albert Schweitzer)

Filed under: Bruno Bauer,Gospel of John,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:32 am
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English: Bruno Bauer

Bruno Bauer

Here’s a little more on Bruno Bauer’s arguments on Gospel origins. (My recent post on Roland Boer’s discussion has put me on a little roll.)

It’s a shame that more of Bauer’s works are not available at reasonable cost in English. I take this as an indicator that scholarship in the English speaking world generally continues to ignore him. Presumably many rely on what others say about his works than on what they have read of Bauer for themselves. Till I can access some of his German texts here is Albert Schweitzer’s presentation. The chapter is available in full online. I’ve cherry-picked from that chapter the themes that interest me the most and that I have raised in other contexts on this blog over the years.

This post is unspeakably long but it is intended to be a collation of references — pick and choose the headers of interest. (more…)

2012/08/10

30. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism — Part 30 (Did Mark Invent Jesus of Nazareth?)

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Did Mark Invent Jesus of Nazareth?

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COVERED IN THIS POST:

  • How much did Mark invent in his Gospel?
  • John’s dependency on the Synoptics
    • John’s changes and innovations
    • Lazarus and the Signs Source
  • How independent of Mark are Matthew and Luke?
    • Robert Price on no “M” and “L” sources
  • Trusting Luke’s Prologue again
    • Ehrman’s fantasy world of “many Gospels” before Mark
  • Rehashing arguments which render an historical Jesus “fact”
  • Postscript

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Did Mark, Our First Gospel, Invent the Idea of a Historical Person, Jesus?

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 259-263)

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Mark building on Q traditions

Mantegna's St. Mark.

Mantegna’s St. Mark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the final section of his critique of individual mythicists, Bart Ehrman addresses the question of whether Mark invented his Gospel character. Insofar as he has my specific position in mind, he doesn’t quite get it right, as usual.

It is widely thought among those who hold such [mythicist] views that the Jesus of the Gospel tradition—the Jewish teacher and prophet of Galilee who did miracles and then was crucified by the Romans—is an invention of our first Gospel, Mark. . . . This view is suggested in several places by Wells and is stated quite definitively by Doherty: “All the Gospels derive their basic story of Jesus of Nazareth from one source: the Gospel of Mark, the first one composed. Subsequent evangelists reworked Mark in their own interests and added new material.” (DJE? p. 259)

I do not say that “the Jewish teacher and prophet of Galilee who did miracles” is the invention of Mark, but rather of the Q community which preceded him, although that invention was not in the form of any narrative life story, but simply as the alleged originator of a bare collection of the community’s sayings and a few anecdotes, with no biography, let alone a personality, in view. (more…)

2012/08/09

Sayings Manufactured For Jesus

Filed under: Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 5:00 pm
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Jesus Outside the Gospels is a small volume compiled by R. Joseph Hoffmann and published 1984. He argued that various sayings of Jesus found across a variety of sources (not only canonical ones) “put it beyond doubt that the church was capable of generating sayings to suit new situations, and did not hesitate to invent new “words” of the Lord”.

“Sayings” of Jesus—which might better be termed traditions about the sayings of Jesus—are not confined to the Gospels canonized in the New Testament- There exist scores of sayings (logia) for which there are no parallels, or only distant ones, in the Gospels. Collectively, these go by the misleading name agrapha—unrecorded words. As this title prejudices their analysis (the Gospels do not present a verbatim record of Jesus’ words), it is best to designate them “extracanonical” sayings or sayings-traditions. The significance of these sayings, it should be emphasized, is not that they present a more reliable picture of Jesus than the one given in the Synoptic Gospels. Rather, they put it beyond doubt that the church was capable of generating sayings to suit new situations, and did not hesitate to invent new “words” of the Lord in furthering their missionary work. The questions of proselytes and the accusations of enemies of the sect were the most prominent but by no means the only situations addressed by these sayings. (JOTG, p. 69)

Hoffmann was not saying that no sayings went back to Jesus himself, but that it was clear that any such sayings were adapted (revised, mutated) according to the needs of the church. This has long been a widely held view among scholars. It is also clear, though, that many sayings were invented and attributed to Jesus himself to give them added weight of authority. Earl Doherty argues that even the Q sayings evolved in a way that they were attributed to Jesus relatively late in their life-cycle.

I think some readers would be interested in seeing a list of some of these extra sayings attributed to Jesus by the early church writers, and the samples following are taken from Hoffmann’s book. I am including here only those sayings found among the “proto-orthodox” Church Fathers and omit those found in Gnostic and other literature.

He begins with sayings of Jesus that appear in Paul’s letters. (more…)

2012/08/06

Hoffmann: James was NOT the biological brother of Jesus

Filed under: Brother of the Lord,The Jesus Process — Neil Godfrey @ 7:01 pm

Steven Carr has drawn our attention to Dr R. Joseph Hoffmann’s argument that Paul’s reference in Galatians 1:19 to “James, the brother of the Lord”, was clearly not meant to be understood by Paul as an indicator that James was the biological brother of Jesus. He wrote in The Jesus Tomb Debacle: RIP:

The James who is head of the church in Jerusalem is not a biological brother of Jesus. Later but inconsistent gospel references to James are muddled reminiscences based on the more prominent James of the Pauline tradition.

The Jesus Process (c) member and scholar Stephanie Fisher has just come out and publicly affirmed the solid scholarly foundation on which Dr Hoffmann’s conclusion that James was NOT the biological brother of Jesus are based:

Joe’s conclusions are based on evidence and argument

I would have been inclined to have suspected Hoffmann has since come to regret his earlier post but we are assured by his fellow member of  The Jesus Process (c)  that there is nothing about Hoffmann’s case that is not based on “evidence and argument” — presumably meaning “valid” argument.

Dr Hoffmann also informs us that his conclusions have the support of other New Testament scholars. He does not name these other scholars, presumably because they are so numerous and well-known among his intended scholarly readership that singling any names would have been superfluous. He writes: (more…)

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