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…)

2013/04/02

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…)

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…)

2012/11/16

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…)

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…)

2012/08/23

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…)

2012/08/19

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…)

2012/05/12

Ehrman: “It is simplest to assume”? How the Gospel of John IS Dependent Upon Gospel of Mark

Bart Ehrman claims that the Gospel of John is testimony to the existence of traditions or sources about the life of Jesus that were independent of anything that was known to the other Gospels. Therefore, so it is implied, the Gospel of John is a witness to Jesus that stands independently of the other Gospels.

When they do tell the same stories (for example, the cleansing of the Temple, the betrayal of Judas, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion and resurrection narratives) they do so in different language (without verbatim overlaps) and with radically different conceptions. It is simplest to assume that John had his own sources for his accounts. (Did Jesus Exist? p. 259)

Bart Ehrman is a scholar so he does not make this claim lightly. He footnotes it to a source, a scholarly source no less:

Robert Kysar, John the Maverick Gospel, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) (this links to an online preview)

And that’s it. A book is cited. Authority. Learning. No argument. If Ehrman had given a slight nod to the fact that scholars are in fact divided over the question of John’s dependence upon the Synoptics, he makes it clear that the “reality” is that there is really no question that the fourth gospel is truly an independent source. (Presumably Ehrman thinks scholars are divided over the nature of the reality about the Gospels.)

To begin with, there are solid reasons for doubting that the Gospel of John is based on Mark or on either of the other two earlier Gospels, even though the matter is debated among scholars. But the reality is that most of the stories told about Jesus in the synoptic Gospels are missing from John, just as most of John’s stories, including his accounts of Jesus’s teachings, are missing from the synoptics.

Can you imagine the response of a scholar like Ehrman toward a mythicist who cited a single work that expressed but one side of a contentious scholarly issue in order to make their argument look authoritative? “Quote mining!” would surely be the criminal charge.

But let’s examine one of the examples of the way John’s version of a Synoptic anecdote is so “radically different” and thus presumably derived from a non-Synoptic source.

Simplest to assume . . . ignorance

Bart Ehrman says the differences between the Gospel of John and a synoptic gospel are so radical that “it is simplest to assume” that they drew upon quite different sources.

Don’t biblical scholars talk to each other? Why did Ehrman not refer to the abundantly published studies by his peers that address the way writers of the era imitated and re-wrote their literary sources?

The question is critical. Studies in recent years have demonstrated decisively that ancient authors imitated or re-adapted literary source material in ways that made it look quite different from the original. Indeed, more often than not, the art of imitation that was most valued was one that shunned verbal and thematic similarities.

Ehrman has apparently never heard of any of this scholarship, or if he has, has declared that it is “simplest to assume” ignorance of it and pronounce, instead, that the primary author of the Gospel of John drew upon an otherwise unattested oral tradition that knew nothing of the synoptic Gospels.

Let’s examine that assumption with a case study of the “cleansing of the Temple”.

The Cleansing of the Temple in Mark and John

Why is the Gospel of John so very much alike the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) yet so completely unlike them? It’s a bit like asking why Virgil’s epic poem of the founding of the Roman race by Aeneas of Troy is so alike yet so completely unlike Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. (more…)

2011/12/31

The earliest gospels 5 – Gospel of John (according to P L Couchoud)

Continuing here with Couchoud’s views of second century gospel origins. Earlier posts, including explanations for the reasons etc  for these posts, are archived here.

C’s story of John’s gospel begins with a setting in Ephesus, two generations after the feverish hopes for the coming of the Lord that produced the Book of Revelation. The church at Ephesus “preserved the tradition of the pillar apostle who had seen the Lord, for in this lay its claim to fame and to authority.” (p. 223) Apocalyptic enthusiasm had dwindled away and been replaced by a mysticism that experienced Christ as having come in the “here and now” in spirit and in their own flesh. Paul’s teachings about a mystical union with Christ also primary, according ot the evidence of “Ignatius” in his letter to the Ephesians, so much so that Paul’s concept of baptism as symbolic of death and burial had been superseded by the idea of baptism as a principle of a new life in Christ, with eternal life being granted at the moment of emerging from the real “water of life”.

These Christians were “born again” here and now and forever. They lived here and now in Light and Life. They could see and touch here and now the miracles of that divine life in full joy and love. The love was, however, a cultic love for their own brethren and worshiped spirits and not for the world. The prophets were revered, but also tested to see that they were not false and that they carried the same teaching of Christ having come now in the flesh.

They rejected the Marcionites and original teaching of Paul that Jesus had come only in the form of a man. Christ’s body was mystically both heavenly and human flesh and blood. Being heavenly Jesus was not, as Matthew said, born through a woman. The logical impossibility of being both spirit and flesh at one time in one body was resolved by mystic illumination that passes rational understanding. (more…)

2011/10/30

The First Edition of the Gospel of John (1)

Filed under: Ashton: Understand 4th Gospel,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 10:35 pm
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The Gospel of John is notorious for its several awkward transitions and these have led a number of scholars to argue that the present Gospel we know is quite different from what must have been its first edition. A recent discussion led to the question of what scholarly publications there are on the original version of the Gospel of John. That sent me back scrambling to dig out what I was sure I must have read a few years ago in a work commended as a must-read to anyone interested in serious studies of the Gospel of John.

A leading scholar on the Gospel of John, John Ashton, has proposed the passages I list below were not part of the original work. Ashton is not suggesting that a later edition had a different author — at least not in its entirety. The stylistic argument indicates that in several instances the same author returned at a later date and under different circumstances to his work to add additional material.

Most interesting is the proposal that the “Cleansing of the Temple” scene was originally in the same place as it is found in the Gospel of Mark — just prior to the Passion of Jesus — and that it was later moved to its present location (chapter 2) to make way for the later addition of the Raising of Lazarus.

At the end of the list of passages that did not belong to the author’s original draft I set out a scholarly reconstruction of the sequence from chapter 10 on. A future post will hopefully complete what I begin here. (Quotations are from John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel.)

(more…)

2011/09/01

Why are the Gospels so believable?

From the Educated Imagination website; Frank Kermode

One of my first posts on this blog asked why the Gospel of Mark was not more often interpreted in a way we would normally interpret any other form of literature. I was referring to Frank Kermode’s discussion of the Gospel of Mark in The Genesis of Secrecy : On the Interpretation of Narrative.

This post explores a more in depth reading of Kermode’s chapter titled “What Precisely Are the Facts?” Here Kermode addresses what it is about the Gospels — the literary devices used in them — that lend them an air of being “true” or believable narratives.

When on occasion I encounter even an academic scholar affirming that a Gospel narrative “rings true” or has an “air of historical plausibility” about it I am dismayed at the naïvety of such assertions. Conscious awareness of the power and functions of rhetorical styles is easily lost on many of us and Kermode goes some way to explaining why.

Not everyone has ready access to Kermode’s book, so I allow readers to glance over my shoulder and see the following snippets I have taken from this chapter. I have bolded the main points that I think deserve quick attention.

The first point ought, to my mind, be simple enough to take for granted if we stop to reflect that the written word is just another means of human expression and humans are by nature capable of being mis-read, misunderstood, and — whether for good or ill — skilled in pretence and deception. Were it otherwise there would be no need for court systems and  no place for a lot of theatre and not a lot of point in lying.

In practice we may feel that we have no particular difficulty in distinguishing between narratives which claim to be reliable records of fact, and narratives which simply go through the motions of being such a record. But when we think about it, as on occasion we may compel ourselves to, the distinction may grow troublesome. (p. 101) (more…)

2011/06/27

Lifting the rug on heresy in the Gospel of John

Filed under: Gospel of John,Parvus: New Look Ignatius — Neil Godfrey @ 10:34 pm
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Roger Parvus has published a fascinating study of the letters of Ignatius and proposes that they originated from one who belonged to the breakaway group from Marcionism that was led by Apelles. Towards the end of his book (A New Look at the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Other Apellian Writings) he addresses the similarities other scholars have observed between the Johannine and Ignatian communities, and suggests that some of those “little contradictions and oddities” in the Gospel of John may also reflect an Apellean origin. (Hopefully I am not stealing too much of his thunder with this post, since I am hoping Roger will be able to argue his case for himself. But a touch of eagerness to write up at least little bit of one facet of his book has got the better of me here.)

I won’t write up much of the detail in the book in this post — just enough to share with others some of the details one can easily read over in John’s Gospel yet fail to notice the contradictions, and the implications of the contradictions, in some of the most familiar passages. Familiarity has a lot to answer for.

This is not an attempt to argue for a particular reading or redaction history of John. That would require much more serious depth. The point of this post is simply to show the possibilities of questions, of alternative understandings, relating to the origin of the Gospel of John from a not widely encountered perspective. (more…)

2011/04/01

Strengthening April DeConick’s Case that John’s Gospel Opposed Vision Mystics; and another word for John knowing Mark

Filed under: DeConick: Voices of Mystics,Gospel of John,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:15 pm
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In my posts last month addressing mystical visionary ascents into heaven among Second Temple Jews and early Christians, I made passing references to April DeConick’s Voices of the Mystics. In this book DeConick argues a case that the school responsible for the Fourth Gospel was writing in some form of dialogue with those following the ideology behind the Gospel of Thomas. Recall among the closing scenes in the Gospel of John that Thomas is singled out as the arch-sceptic who will not believe unless he sees. Jesus allows him to see, but then commends all Christians who believe without seeing.

I will save the details of DeConick’s argument for another post. Here I will discuss one small episode in John’s gospel that DeConick does not include in her book, but it struck me just now how potentially supportive of her thesis this detail is. It also leads to additional indications that the author of John knew the Gospel of Mark. (more…)

2011/02/15

Miracles as symbol, not history or biography

This post continues from earlier ones on Spong’s discussion of the meaning and nonhistoricity of miracles in the gospels. See the link above to Spong: Jesus for the Non Religious for these earlier posts.

In discussing the miraculous cure of the blind man in the Gospel of John, John Spong makes a point that I have made in recent posts about Gospel genre: the gospels are not designed to relate marvellous events performed Jesus, but rather to focus on pointing out the identity of Jesus. If this truly is the point of the miracle narratives in the gospels, then some questions come to mind over what reasons anyone might have for thinking they might have some historical basis.

Firstly, if they are told to illustrate a theological construct about Jesus, then we have a candidate for a tendentious motive in their appearances in the narratives.

Secondly, if they are not told to focus on the astonishing personality and impact Jesus had among his contemporaries as a renowned healer (or even shaman, as some have suggested), then we have no reason to think that they formed part of any genuine biographical information about Jesus.

Spong himself does not question the historicity of Jesus. Spong is clear that he believes “of course” there was a historical figure who was baptized by John, crucified by Pilate, and who gathered a few (though probably not twelve) disciples such as Peter (but not Judas, who was an anti-semitic invention).

But when I read the sorts of literary arguments by Spong where he points out that the miracle stories are not so much about the person of Jesus as a figure of history, but rather about a theological identity attributed to him by later authors, then I wonder why the question of historicity should not arise. Is not Spong’s argument essentially an argument that favours the Gospels being entirely theological-narrative inventions?

This looks post at the last of the healing miracles addressed by Spong in Jesus for the Non Religious. (more…)

2010/12/28

How the Gospel of John created a Jesus from Wisdom Literature

Filed under: Gospel of John,Spong: Rescuing Bible Fund — Neil Godfrey @ 9:54 am
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Personification of wisdom (in Greek, "Σοφ...

Image via Wikipedia

Earlier I outlined Spong’s discussions of the way the Gospel of Matthew mined the Hebrew scriptures to portray Jesus as a new Moses, and the way Luke’s Gospel found in the same Jewish scriptures ways to present him as a greater Elijah. This post repackages Spong’s discussion of how the author(s) of the Gospel of John turned to the same Scriptures, but added to them from the Wisdom literature of late Judaism in order to create a Jesus who was the embodiment of the Wisdom found there.

Before looking at the Wisdom literature from which John drew, Spong covers some of John’s cuts from the Old Testament that he used to build his Jesus. (I have expanded Spong’s Wisdom and Biblical citations into tabular form, with quotes and/or links.)

By the time the Gospels were written, the Old Testament had been culled again and again, looking for treasures of interpretation and hints that might prefigure the Christ. A common body of material had emerged. .  . .

(more…)

2010/05/31

Fallen Watchers of Enoch and the 12 Disciples in Mark’s Gospel

Filed under: Daniel,Fallen Watchers,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 1:33 pm
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I found this article by Rick Strelan interesting reading:

The Fallen Watchers and the Disciples in Mark, Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha, 20 (1999) 73-92

Rick Strelan begins by showing the likelihood that the gospel authors knew and drew upon Enochian legends and themes.

The legend of the Fallen Watchers — those angels who left the high heaven and descended to marry the daughters of humans — is one of the myths most often cited in the Jewish-Christian literature of the period 200 BCE to 300 CE.

The ‘Book of Watchers’ of 1 Enoch is referred to in

  1. Jubilees
  2. 2 Enoch
  3. 3 Enoch
  4. 2 Baruch
  5. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
  6. Philo’s ‘On Giants’
  7. Josephus in Antiquities 1.3.1
  8. Qumran documents
  9. Jude 6
  10. 2 Peter 2:4
  11. 1 Peter 3:19-20
  12. Justin Martyr (2 Apology 5)
  13. Athenagoras (Plea 24-26)
  14. Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.10.1; 1.15.6; 4.16.2; 4.36.4)
  15. Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (8.12-18)
  16. Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (4.26)
  17. Manichaean writings (The Kephalaia of the Teacher 92, 93, 117, 171)
  18. Nag Hammadi documents (e.g. Ap John 19:16-20:11)

Strelan writes that in nearly all of these references, the myth of the Fallen Watchers is told to illustrate the lesson that the present generation is sinful and is facing a test of faithfulness to the law of God.

A related theme that comes through, especially in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Reuben) is the evil of women. Women are lying schemers and seducers of men. They brought about the fall of the Watcher angels, and the faithful are warned to guard against sexual lust, and women.

Strelan refers to an article by George Nickelsburg in which he sees the Gospel of Mark’s Passion Narrative drawing on Jewish stories of Joseph, Ahikar, Esther, Daniel and Susanna. Strelan sees Mark as also constructing the disciples of Jesus according to the fallen Watchers legend of Enoch. And again, it is to present the same lesson: the unfaithfulness of his own generation. (more…)

2010/03/02

The insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy

Filed under: Gospel of John,Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 7:12 pm

I have just been alerted to a post on FRDB that quotes a blogpost by April DeConick, Self-Preservation and the Gospel of John.

University and Church

University and Church: Image by Andreika via Flickr

. . . . . what is coming home for me in a very real way is just how much the traditions are safe-guarded by the dominant group – be it the mainstream churches or the academy – and how far the dominant group will go to protect them. The interests and preservation of those interests often become the end-all, even at the expense of historical truth. The rationalizations, the apologies, the ‘buts’, the tortured exegesis, the negative labeling, the side-stepping, the illogical claims accumulate until they create an insurmountable wall that preserves both church and academy, which remain (uncomfortably so for me) symbiotic.

The entrenchment of the academy is particularly worrisome for me. Scholars’ works are often spun by other scholars, not to really engage in authentic critical debate or review, but to cast the works in such a way that they can be dismissed (if they don’t support the entrenchment) or engaged (if they do). . . . . The quest for historical knowledge does not appear to me to be the major concern. It usually plays back seat to other issues including the self-preservation of the ideas and traditions of the dominant parties – those who control the churches, and the academy with its long history of alliance with the churches.

I link above to April’s comments on her site, and some of the discussion (and related links) on FRDB.

Forgive me if I happen to see something of James McGrath’s recent exchanges described in the above — although April herself is certainly no “mythicist”.

I am also surprised how her publication The Thirteenth Apostle seems to have made less impact on the popular notion of the “good Judas” than I had expected.

Good grief! If this is the fate of challenging ideas within the guild, anyone with a mythical Jesus view would need rocks in his head to even touch the subject with a mainstream academic.

Not quite on the same wave, but it reminds me of how Gregory Riley’s work in Resurrection Reconsidered was not widely known although his arguments just happened to appear later (with no acknowledged link to Riley’s work, so presumably by sheer coincidence) in a work of the highly marketable author Elaine Pagels. (When Robert Price published the same observation, it was disheartening to think how things really do seem to work in the real world of academe.)

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2010/01/28

Starting a new religion with The Gospel of John

Filed under: Ashton: Understand 4th Gospel,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 7:52 am
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Cover of "Understanding the Fourth Gospel...

Cover of Understanding the Fourth Gospel

One of the more absorbing books I caught up with about a year ago is Understanding the Fourth Gospel (2nd ed) by John Ashton. (I had read somewhere that this is the book to read for anyone wanting to understand what could be understood about this gospel. It obviously had something of interest for me — since writing this post I noticed I have written on snippets of this book several times before, now collated here.)

Of many insights I would like to revisit and share, here’s one I opened up again just now. It shows how this gospel, unlike other Jewish literature and, say, Matthew’s gospel, declares itself (through its Jesus) as the foundation of a new religion. Nothing new really in the big scheme of things here, but it does give another glimpse into the mind and context of the author of this gospel.

The life of Moses furnishes an ample reservoir of legends from which Jewish writers of all persuasions could draw when searching for fresh models, symbols or arguments to encourage and inspire their own contemporaries.

Thus Deuteronomy gives a new twist to some of the earlier episodes involving Moses in Exodus and Numbers.

The same book anticipates further room for story development by announcing a future prophet “just like Moses”.

Since the Exodus story is, among other things, a foundation myth, the frequency with which other writers turn to it should not surprise us. What may cause surprise is the number of guises in which Moses appears . . . .

  • leader and legislator
  • inventor and engineer (Artapanus)
  • prophet (Josephus)
  • sage in an allegorical country where the wise man is king (Philo)
  • a shepherd of his people (Testament of Moses; Pseudo-Philo)

Moses figure in:

  • Attic style drama (Ezekiel the Tragedian)
  • allegory (Philo)
  • historical romance (Artapanus)
  • history (Josephus)
  • testament genre (Testament of Moses)

But Moses was not the only inspirational option available to writers.

Books were also written in the names of Enoch, Baruch, Ezra.

The key thing to note about all of the above:

Yet although they were proposing new revelations they were not repudiating the old.

Where the Gospel of John is different:

Where the fourth evangelist differs from all of these, as well as from those who exploited the Moses tradition, is in his conscious substitution of this tradition by the story of Jesus: ‘You search the scriptures,’ Jesus tells ‘the Jews’, ‘and I am the one to which they bear witness’ (5:39). The deliberate replacement of one founder-figure by another (the same step would be taken centuries later by Mohammed) is effectively the proclamation of a new religion. We may compare John with Matthew here, for whom Jesus is a second Moses, refining and purifying the law, but not replacing it (5:17). John, by contrast, puts the law aside, offering instead, in the name of Jesus Christ, ‘grace and truth’ (1:17). Similarly the Temple, the second pillar of contemporary Judaism, was for Matthew a place where Jesus’ disciples continued to offer their gifts: whereas in John the locus of Christian worship has shifted to a place of ‘spirit and truth’ (4:23) [p. 448]

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2009/12/30

Resurrection reversal

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

The date

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

v8: Carrier (2004c) observes:

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

The Widow of Ephesus tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009/12/27

Popular novels and the gospels

Filed under: Gospel of John,Jesus,New Testament — Neil Godfrey @ 10:55 am
Tags: , ,

This post is a sequel to Another Empty Tomb Tale.

The Gospel of John has the most sermonizing or serious philosophical tone to it with its many figurative speeches of Jesus. It is natural for anyone not familiar with the literary world in which it was produced to remain unaware that it also reflects many features of the popular love stories of its day. That is, in fact, the point of most interest to me: in order to really understand the nature of the gospels one must understand the literary culture in which they were created.

I recently posted an extract of an empty tomb scene from Chaereas and Callirhoe that can scarcely fail to remind a modern reader of the scenes surrounding the empty tomb in the gospels, particularly the Gospel of John. In the Chaereas and Callirhoe love novella the empty tomb scene appears early in the plot and is the gateway to the main action that follows.

Crucifixions

Continuing with the same Chariton novel, one finds that even an unjust crucifixion of a main character serves to add dramatic tension.

The hero (Chaereas) and his friend (Polycharmus) are falsely condemned as murderers and unjustly sentenced to crucifixion. The condemned are portrayed as carrying their own crosses to their doom. Chaereas’ nobility of character is demonstrated by his patient silence in the face of this injustice and suffering. (As in the earlier post, the extracts are from Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels.)

Some of the men in Chaereas’s chain gang . . . broke their chains in the night, murdered the overseer, and tried to escape. They failed . . . Without even seeing them or hearing their defense the master at once ordered the crucifixion of [all] the men . . . They were brought out chained together foot and neck, each carrying his cross — the men executing the sentence added this grim public spectacle to the inevitable punishment as an example to frighten the other prisoners. Now Chaereas said nothing when he was led off with the others, but Polycharmus, as he carried his cross, said: “Callirhoe, it is because of you that we are suffering like this! You are the cause of all our troubles!” . . .

Polycharmus is then whisked off to the governor who ordered the crucifixion, Mithridates, in the expectation that he can reveal more about names associated with the murder. In the course of the interrogation before the governor, Polycharmus said:

“. . . Now we put up with our misfortune patiently, but some of our fellow prisoners . . . broke their chains and committed a murder; and you ordered us all to be taken off and crucified. Well, my friend [Chaereas] didn’t utter a word against his wife, even when the execution was under way . . . . Sir, please tell the executioner not to separate even our crosses.”

This story was greeted with tears and groans, and Mithridates sent everybody off to reach Chaereas before he did. They found the rest nailed up on their crosses: Chaereas was just ascending his. So they shouted to them from far off. “Spare him!” cried some; others, “Come down!” or “Don’t hurt him!” or “Let him go!” So the executioner checked his gesture, and Chaereas climbed down from his cross . . .

Mithridates [the governor] met him and embraced him. “My brother, my friend!” he said, “Your silence almost misled me into committing a crime! Your self-control was quite out of place!(pp. 67-69)

The silence of Jesus in a similar predicament is generally read as an astonishing holiness of character. So it is instructive to see the same motif applied to the hero of a popular novel from around the same era.

Other novels likewise contain scenes of miscarriages of justice and crucifixions of the hero, or apparent scenes of sure death of the heroine, and which turn out happily nonetheless.

Here is one more example. This is from another love story, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon ‘of Ephesus’, translated by Graham Anderson.

When the prefect heard the particulars, he made no further effort to find out the facts but gave orders to have Habrocomes taken away and crucified. Habrocomes himself was dumbfounded at his miseries . . . The prefect’s agents brought him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer drop overlooking the torrent. They set up the cross and attached him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes; that is the way the Egyptians crucify. . . . But Habrocomes looked straight at the sun, then at the Nile channel, and prayed: “Kindest of the gods, ruler of Egypt, . . .  if I, Habrocomes, have done anything wrong, may I perish miserably and incur an even greater penalty if there is one; but I have been betrayed . . . .”  The god took pity on his prayer. A sudden gust of wind arose and struck the cross, sweeping away the subsoil on the cliff where it had been fixed. Habrocomes fell into the torrent and was swept away; the water did him no harm . . . . (p. 155)

Innocent heroes, betrayals, unjust judges, crucifixions, patient endurance, empty tombs, faith in the gods to deliver . . . . They are all as much the stuff of ancient popular fiction as they are of the canonical gospels.

The focus on the character, not the pain

Another interesting detail that the gospels and these novellas have in common is their focus on the nobility of character of the hero through his unjust treatment and crucifixion. A modern reader expects a portrayal of crucifixion to convey the physical agony involved, that that is something quite absent from both the ancient novels and the gospels. (Mel Gibson fulfilled an obvious modern demand for that sort of detail with his The Passion of the Christ movie.)

Other novelistic motifs

Jo-Ann A. Brant is one academic who has published studies in the novelistic motifs and art in the Gospel of John. I have discussed some of her work in some detail previously. Here I will just point to some of the main ideas that she explains. The following are extracts from my earlier post Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John.

Abandoned child

The true father of Jesus, God himself, chose to leave his infant son in the foster care of humble parents from Nazareth. By doing this he was knowingly leaving his son to become a victim of false accusations, envy, abuse and death. But his motive was entirely good — it was done out of love and not any desire to see his son die. All blame for mistreatment falls on those who carry it out, and the father bears no responsibility for what his son suffers.

That the hero or heroine was abandoned by their parents and left to face death, and raised by others of a very lowly status, was a common theme in ancient mythology and novels: . . . .

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

Wanderings and signs

Novels would commonly begin with an opening conflict that led to a series of episodes in which the main character wandered from adventure to adventure, facing death, danger, conflict and temptation at every turn. The hero would also carry signs of their true parentage, and these signs would themselves often be the focus of the movement of the story. Some would be in awe of the signs (whether they were something about their physical appearance or tokens or some form of wealth) and want to protect the hero; others would be envious or greedy and want to kill them.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The first love scene

Can’t have a good novel without good love scenes. The gospel of John plays with some of the standard ones.

“There is near consensus among literary critics that the scene at Jacob’s well follows conventions of the betrothal type-scene found in Hebrew narrative.” (Husband hunting, 211)

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The second love scene

At the commencement of the story of Lazarus the author informs readers that the Mary he is to refer to is the one who will later in the gospel anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and her hair. Thus we are given a motive for Mary’s later act — she loves Jesus out of gratitude for raising her brother from the dead.

Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. (12:3)

The reader knows that the woman is preparing Jesus for burial, but the actors in the narrative do not know this. Rather, the scene is heavy with sensuality, and suggestive of a prenuptial ritual. At the level of the textual narrative (apart from its symbolic meaning) it appears that Mary is attempting to court Jesus, even asking him to marry her.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

The resolution

At the end the main character must reconcile his own desires with those of his father. Jesus does not wish to die but acknowledges that that is the reason the father has left him to face the world (12:27-28). His obedience to the father’s will ultimately confirms that he truly is the obedient son of God.

Similar motifs are at work in An Ethiopian Story: a trial at the end, a daughter who must prove her obedience to her father, a father who feels obliged to sacrifice his daughter for the sake of the people — although in this case the crowd calls out for her to be set free, contrary to the demands of the crowd in the gospel.

(See Novelistic plot . . . for more details)

Death and marriage, a popular couplet

In the opening miracle in the Gospel of John, there is again a strong association between marriage and death. The Cana miracle took place at a wedding, but the miracle itself, with its imagery of blood, pointed to the death of the bridegroom Jesus. Again in the Gospel of John we see the same ironic association when Jesus is anointed. The reader knows the sensual scene, one that ostensibly borders on a proposal of marriage, is in fact (and unknown to the characters involved) a preparation for the death of Jesus.

The metaphoric link between marriage consummation and an untimely death is common enough. Another example of it in ancient novels from the cultural era of the gospels is the second century novel by Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon:

And when will you marry, my son; when will I make the offerings to sanctify your wedding, O groom and bridegroom — unconsummated bridegroom, unlucky chevalier. Your bridal chamber is the grave, your wedlock is with death, your wedding march a funeral hymn, your marriage song this dirge. (p. 186)

What a resplendent wedding: your bedroom is a prisoners’ cell; your mattress is the ground; your garlands and bracelets are hawsers and wrist ropes; the bride’s escort is a brigand sleeping at the door! Instead of the wedding march we hear a funeral song. (p. 214)

(From Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels)


2009/12/24

Another Empty Tomb Tale

Filed under: Gospel of John,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 8:51 am
Tags: , ,

Just how unique are the empty tomb narratives in the gospels really?  Here is a narrative of a fictional empty tomb story from the same period, possibly slightly earlier, as the gospels.

Note the graphic details, the similarity of actions, settings and feelings to those found in the gospels; and even the conclusion that the missing corpse was a sign that the one buried had  been a divinity in the flesh, and was now a goddess in heaven.

It is from the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, translated by B. P. Reardon

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb – it was night, and they were in a hurry.

At the crack of dawn Chareas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that could cure his grief.

When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor – a swift messenger – told the Syracusans this amazing news.

They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. This man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately.

It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there.

Then Chareas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callihroe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing.

Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness.

One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off – it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse – where is it?”

Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd.

“Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callihroe and is now keeping her with him – against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly – so that she would not realize what is happening.

That is how Dionyus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station.

From pages 54/5 of Collected Ancient Greek Novels ed by B. P. Reardon, 1989

Of the date of this novel, Reardon writes that it was “written in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward . . . and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D.”  (p. 17)

Any study of the gospel empty tomb stories ought to be aware of the remarkably similar sorts of stories that were popular at the time.

For anyone not so familiar with the gospel narratives, the phrases I have highlighted are echoed in the following details of the gospels:

  • the women mourners coming early morning to the tomb of Jesus
  • to complete their mourning tasks
  • on reaching the tomb they are astonished to find the (stone) door open
  • and to find the tomb empty
  • in the Gospel of John Peter arrives first at the tomb but does not go inside
  • another disciple arrives soon afterwards and does go inside the tomb
  • and he sees for sure that there is no body
  • people (disciples) could not believe it
  • the empty tomb is a sign that Jesus was indeed divine and had returned to his place in heaven as a divinity

2009/12/06

Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels

Of the authors of Deuteronomy Bernard M. Levinson writes

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

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

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

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

Twisting your opponent’s words

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

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

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

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

2009/06/28

The mystical return of Jesus to “many mansions”

Filed under: Ashton: Understand 4th Gospel,Book Reviews & Notes,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 1:04 pm

In my Father’s house are many mansions . . . . I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

There is nothing like this statement in the synoptic gospels. Many interpret this passage in John to mean that Jesus is going to prepare a room in a heavenly palace for each believer who will eventually get there. But the author of the gospel appears to explain what he means here just a few verses later, and it has nothing to do with a believer going to heaven and finding a nice apartment room there with their name on the door. Rather, the room is the body of the individual believer, and that Jesus and the Father will descend to earth to make their mystical union with each believer.

The larger house or mansion that contains all of these many rooms or abodes or homes is the “church” or wider community of the Johannine Christians.

This is another snippet from John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed. He begins with Hoskyns suggesting that the starting point for interpreting this verse is the fulfilment of a prophecy found in both canonical and noncanonical Jewish writings:

Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Exodus 25:8; c.f. Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:11-12)

And I will set my sanctuary in their midst for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them . . . (Ezekiel 37:26-27)

For behold! I am coming and I will dwell in your midst, says the Lord. (Zechariah 2:10)

And I will build my sanctuary in their midst, and I will dwell with them and be their God, and they shall be my people . . . (Jubilees 1:17)

This suggestion is plausible and attractive. If Hoskyns is right, then the μοναι (AV “mansions”) of 14:2, individual rooms or apartments in the house of God, are reinterpreted in 14:23 as places on earth, localized in the community, where not only Jesus but God himself, coming in a cultic or mystical manner, can find a welcome. (Understanding, p.441)

Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:22-23)

Another scholar (Aune) is cited by Ashton as suggesting that the term for “house” in 14:2 and 8:35 was probably used by the Johannine community of Christians to refer to themselves. For this reason, Aune also interpret’s “mansions” as a reference to each individual believer in whom dwells the spirit of the Father and the Son.

That is, according to the Gospel of John, the “coming of Jesus Christ” is not a “parousia” at a climactic “end of the age” event, nor is it the resurrection, nor is it the sending of the Holy Spirit. Rather,

[i]t presages a mystical union of awesome intimacy, one taht indicates the profoundly contemplative character of the Johannine community.

Ashton is aware that many Protestant writers don’t like to use words like “mysticism”, but that the above interpretation of Jesus and the Father making their home with believers in their “rooms” (bodies, minds) is a much more coherent and obvious explanation than the “going to heaven” idea preferred by many believers today.

The Mansions, Brisbane

How could I resist including this pic (The Mansions) that Zemanta threw up for me while typing the above post. I never knew I grew up and lived so many years so close to heaven -- my old hometown, Brisbane, Australia.

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2009/06/27

A Gospel of John link to the Book of Enoch – and a meaningful death without a resurrection

Filed under: Ashton: Understand 4th Gospel,Book Reviews & Notes,Gospel of John — Neil Godfrey @ 5:03 pm

My previous post discussed John Ashton’s observation that the Prologue of the Gospel of John owes something to the ancient noncanonical Jewish beliefs about Wisdom as expressed in Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Ben Sira. This post is intended to be read as a part of that post.

Cover of

Cover of Understanding the Fourth Gospel

Without wanting to misrepresent the central themes of John Ashton’s book, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (2nd ed) — it is NOT about the noncanonical sources of the Gospel of John as I might appear to be suggesting here — there is the other side of the message of the Prologue that Ashton also addresses, and that is the return of the Logos from earth back to heaven.

The Prologue concludes with Jesus returning to the bosom of the Father in heaven:

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten [. . . varying MSS lines for God or Son . . .] who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him. (John 1:18)

As Ashton remarks, with the return of the Son of God to the Father at the end of the Prologue, the story is in effect over before it begins.

But the theme of Jesus returning to the Father is picked up again later in the Gospel. Jesus’ death is depicted by the evangelist as an ascent to heaven, a return to the Father who sent him, an ascent back to his original home in heaven with the Father:

Then Jesus said to them again, “I am going away . . . Where I go you cannot come” . . . Then Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know . . .” (John 8:21, 28)

“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all . . . to myself” (John 12:32)

“I am going to the Father (John 14:12, 28)

If the Wisdom of Ben Sira expresses a Jewish belief that “Wisdom” was sent into the world but was rejected by the world, with the result that only a chosen few (Israel) received Wisdom as their own where she could dwell (until rejection and failure to recognize her set in), another noncanonical Jewish book, 1 Enoch, completes this thought by declaring that after Wisdom had been sent she returned to her place in heaven.

Wisdom found no place where she could dwell, and her dwelling was in heaven. Wisdom went out in order to dwell among the sons of men, but did not find a dwelling; wisdom returned to her place and took her seat in the midst of angels. (1 Enoch 42:1-2)

This is the conclusion of the Prologue and it is also the conclusion of the Gospel of John. (The resurrection and epilogue are clumsily added end-tags that add nothing to the message and meaning of the Gospel.)

Jesus, after having been sent by the Father from heaven with a revelation from God — a revelation that is expressed in the Gospel narrative’s Works, not Words, since the words themselves “reveal” nothing more than that Jesus was the revealer (Ashton building on Bultmann) — returns to his home in heaven and to the Father who sent him.

Thus Jesus, like Wisdom as attested in noncanonical Jewish scriptures, is sent from heaven, descends therefore from heaven, is rejected on earth, finds a dwelling place among a few, then ascends back to heaven.

As Ashton remarks, (from memory) if this is not gnosticism, it is (nonetheless awfully) close.

This notion of descending from heaven and ascending back to heaven is also a Son of Man motif in the Gospel. This is established from the beginning when Jesus tells Jesus that Nathaniel will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (1:51).

The descending and ascending motif is also a noncanonical Wisdom motif. If (as is argued elsewhere and by others) the Son of Man is associated with the cult of royalty, kings, in Israel (compare the development of the notion of “Son of Man” from the original Aramaic text in Daniel where a kingdom of Israel is to replace the kingdoms of gentiles represented by beasts), then it appears that the Gospel of John represents an attempt to merge this royal Son of Man with the idea of the Logos, the true Wisdom that is replacing the Law of Moses (1:17), descending and ascending in relation to its home in heaven.

We thus see here in the Gospel of John how a death of the heavenly messenger, the Christ even (though this title is not overly emphasized, apparently, in the original strata of the Gospel of John) is seen as a positive event in its own right, and requires no resurrection sequel to touch it up with extraneous “hope”. In the Gospel of John the death of Christ is equated as a glorification of Jesus, an ascent to heaven, a return to the Father.

In addition to the above passages cited from GJohn, we have:

And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:23-24)

Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified . . . (John 13:31 in context of Judas going out to betray Jesus and initiate the events leading to his death)

These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son,  . . . .
And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.
(John 17:1, 5)

For the Johannine school of Christianity, the death of Jesus was in and of itself a glorious thing — it was Jesus’ return to heaven and the Father. His being “lifted up” by crucifixion was paradoxically actually a “lifting up” back to heaven!

One can begin to see how the gospel’s inclusion and rewriting of resurrection appearances of Jesus can be argued as superfluous. There are several reasons for thinking that they were never part of the original text quite apart from the above. Examples: angels appear to deliver one-liners without waiting for answers; the appearance of Jesus to the disciples fearfully locking themselves in a room knows nothing of the next scene where we learn that Thomas was missing; etc. Indeed, as Gregory Riley argues in Resurrection Reconsidered, someone was using the Gospel of John’s turf to argue against other Christians who followed Mary, Peter and Thomas as their lead-disciples.

One conclusion:

John Ashton’s Understanding the Fourth Gospel is not about noncanonical sources of the gospel. But he does offer enough evidence to remind us that understanding Christian origins requires a broader outlook than seeking to relate everything in the New Testament gospels back to something in the canonical Jewish literature, or Old Testament.

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2009/06/25

Evolution of Gospel of John’s Prologue from the Wisdom of Ben Sira

It seems almost trivial to write a post based upon John Ashton’s discussion (Understanding the Fourth Gospel 2nd ed.) of the theological links between the Wisdom of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) and the Prologue in the Gospel of John, given the depths he explores throughout the gospel. But even though it’s only a pimple on a much larger discussion, I found it interesting enough (and short enough) to write about anyway.

Beginning of the Gospel of John from a pocket ...

Image via Wikipedia

Most of us know the Prologue of John well enough. The Word was with God in the beginning, become flesh, rejected by his own, finds a place among his disciples, . . . .

But first, a select look at Wisdom (a “she” in the OT) in the pre-Christian Jewish literature:

In the Jewish Scriptures (Christianity’s Old Testament) and noncanonical writings Wisdom appears as a feminine figure who is a favourite of God.

Wisdom is speaking in Proverbs 8:30

Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him (or God’s “darling and delight” and “playing in his presence continually” in the NEB).

Ashton believes that this playful feminine figure appears in the guise of the masculine and more severe figure of the Logos, the Word, in the Gospel of John. But how? What was the stepping stone between the two, since the gulf seems too great to have been reached in a single leap?

John Ashton sees the link in Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Ben Sira, or of Jesus the Son of Sirach.

By an amazing leap of theological imagination he had identified Wisdom, who had ‘come forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist’ with the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us. (p. 503, Understanding)

Thus Sirach 24:3

I came out of the mouth of the most High, and covered the earth as a cloud/mist.

and 24:23

All these things are the book of the covenant of the most high God, even the law which Moses commanded for an heritage unto the congregations of Jacob.

Note, of course, how John’s Prologue swaps the law of Moses with the Logos. (For the Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.)

Earlier in Sirach — 24:4-7

I [Wisdom] dwelt in high places, and my throne is in a cloudy pillar.
I alone compassed the circuit of heaven, and walked in the bottom of the deep.
In the waves of the sea and in all the earth, and in every people and nation, I got a possession.
With all these I sought rest: and in whose inheritance shall I abide?

Then Sirach 24:8

So the Creator of all things gave me a commandment, and he that made me caused my tabernacle to rest, and said, Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thine inheritance in Israel.

Compare also with John’s Prologue

Sirach 24:9

He created me from the beginning before the world

and in another apocryphal writing, the Wisdom of Solomon 9:4

Give me wisdom, that sitteth by thy throne

When Wisdom, who had dwelt from the beginning with God, entered the world as the Law and God’s special gift to Israel, she (Wisdom) began to have a history. But that history was essentially one of “incomprehension and rejection”. (p. 504)

Compare the themes above with those in the Prologue of John:

  • The Word (Logos) dwelt from the beginning with God, as did Jewish Wisdom
  • The Word was sent by God to the earth, as was Jewish Wisdom
  • The Word thus came to God’s own (Jews) but if did not find a dwelling place, as Wisdom also came to God’s own (his creation – all races)
  • But God did grant a few to welcome the Word to make its home among them, just as God gave Wisdom as a special gift to Israel.
  • The Word tabernacled among men, as Wisdom also tabernacled on earth.
  • The Word suffered rejection and disbelief, as did Wisdom.

And beyond John’s gospel

Sirach also resonates with other Wisdom passages in gospels other than that of John.

Sirach 24:33

I will yet pour out doctrine [teaching] as prophecy, and leave it to all ages for ever.

Compare Luke 11:49

Therefore the Wisdom of God also said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute.”

and Mattew 23:34

Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city.

Many scholars have seen the above Lukan passage as a very early strata of a Christian saying because of its link with personified Wisdom, and believe Matthew “modernized” the saying (not from Luke, but from the same source Luke used for the passage.) That is certainly a plausible explanation in its own right, but when we compare the above theological ambience of Sirach with the Gospel of John, which many scholars declare to be the latest written gospel, the question of the age and source of the Lukan passage (being very primitive) is not necessarily so secure. Especially so if we take note of those scholars who argue Luke ante-dates John. It is not unthinkable (though I do not have the Greek skills to argue the point in depth) that the Lukan passage shared the lateness of John’s — with John developing a theology of identifying Jesus with Wisdom, and a second century Luke (or at least a Lukan redactor who also wrote Acts) attempting to tie bits of John with the other gospels as and where he found it possible to create a more “catholic” (and anti-Marcionite) gospel grounded in “Judaism”. (See my notes on Tyson for details.)

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2009/06/16

Jesus in the Gospel of John — and the Apocalypse of Abraham

The way Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel of John owes as much to the literary and theological culture of Jewish apocalyptic writings from the same era. Will set out the following in easier to follow table form on http://www.vridar.info soon.

Compare, for example, the Jewish Apocalypse of Abraham, possibly written around the same era as the gospels and other early Christian literature (parenthetic notes are mine and/or John Ashton’s (Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed.)– some translation variations are from R. Rubinkiewiez):

1. Then a voice came to me speaking twice, “Abraham! Abraham!” and I said, “Here I am!” And He said, “Behold it is I, fear not for I am with you, for I AM before the ages, and Mighty, the God who created the first light of the world. I am your protector and your helper.”

2. “Go, take me a young heifer of three years, and a she-goat of three years, and a ram of three years, a turtledove and a pigeon, and bring me a pure sacrifice. And in this sacrifice I will lay before you the ages to come, and make known to you what is reserved, and you shall see great things that you have not hitherto seen:

3. because you have loved to search me out, and I have named you ‘my friend.’ (The text here in fact says ‘my lover.’) But abstain from every form of food that comes forth out of the fire, and from the drinking of wine, and from anointing yourself with oil, for forty days, and then set forth for me the sacrifice which I have commanded you, in a place which I will show you on a high mountain, and there I will show you the ages which have been created and established by my word, and I will make known to you what shall come to pass in them on those who have done evil and righteousness in the generations of men.”

4. And it came to pass when I heard the voice of Him who spoke such words to me, and I looked here and there, I found no breath in me, and my spirit was frightened, and my soul seemed as departed from me, for I fell down as a stone, as a dead man upon the earth, and had no more strength to stand. And while I was thus lying with my face towards the earth, I heard the voice of the Holy One speaking, “Go, Jaoel [or Yaoel — a contraction of the gods Yahweh and El], and by means of my ineffable Name raise up yonder man and strengthen him , so that he recovers from his trembling.

5. And the angel whom He had sent came to me in the likeness of a man [cf Dan. 7:13] and grasped me by my right hand and set me up upon my feet and said to me, “Stand up Abraham, 0 friend of God who loves you; let not the trembling of man seize you! For lo! I have been sent to you to strengthen you and bless you in the name of God, who loves you, the Creator of the celestial and the terrestrial. Be fearless and hasten to Him. I am called Jaoel [or Yaoel — a contraction of the gods Yahweh and El] by Him who moves those who exist with me on the seventh expanse over the heavens, a power in virtue of the ineffable Name that is dwelling in me [cf. Exod. 23:21]. I am the one who has been given to restrain, according to His commandment, the threatening attacks of the Living Ones of the Cherubim against one another, and to teach those who carry Him, the song of the seventh hour of the night of man.

6. I am ordered to restrain the Leviathan, for every single attack and menace of every single reptile are subject unto me. I am he who has been commissioned to loosen Hades, and destroy him who stares at the dead. (This ‘staring’ is an attitude of Satan, whereby he paralyses and victimises the dead.) I have been sent to bless you now, and the land which the Eternal One, whom you have invoked, has prepared for you, and for your sake I have wended my way upon earth [For your sake I have indicated the way of the land – cf Exod. 23:20].

7. Stand up, Abraham! Go without fear; be right glad and rejoice, and I am [also rejoice] with you! For age-lasting honour has been prepared for you by the Eternal One. Go, fulfil the sacrifices commanded. For lo! I have been appointed to be with you, and with the generations that will spring from you, and with me Michael blesses you forever. Be of good cheer and go!”

Compare the remarkable similarities between God and Yaoel above and Jesus in the Gospel of John:

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.  .  .  . Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.(John 8:56, 58)

But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. (John 6:20) and Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)

Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (John 15:14-15)

Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (John 1:50-51)

I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. (John 16: 12-15)

And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5: 27-29)

Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. (John 7:33)

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

As Ashton observes, the question is not who copied from whom, but that both represent a common view of Abraham and the roles and natures of heavenly beings — God and Jesus or Yaoel and the Son of Man. Both depict comforting heavenly beings who have been sent to reveal great things to those who are to be henceforth their friends, and much more.

2009/06/15

Intimations of the Death and Resurrection of the Son of Man in Daniel

I owe most of the following either to John Ashton in his second edition of Understanding the Fourth Gospel or to someone he cites in there (unfortunately cannot recall which):

Firstly, the original Aramaic expression for what is generally today translated as Son of Man really means nothing more than a man-like figure or one like a man. Secondly, that original Aramaic meaning is by Christian times irrelevant since by the time of the Christian writings and Jewish apocalyptic writings of the same era, it had come to mean what it is translated as today: Son of Man.

Before the Son of Man appears

Prior to the entrance of Daniel’s Son of Man is the well-know fourth beast (the Syrian/Seleucid empire of Antiochus Epiphanes — not Rome!)

Daniel 7:19-21, 23-25

Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet; . . . that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows. I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; . . . .

Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. . . . And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out [persecute] the saints of the most High. . . and they shall be given into his hand . . . .

The fourth beast was terrifying particularly for making war against the saints, the people of God, and martyring them.

A series of beast-like creatures had appeared. The first was “like a lion”. This eventually became “like a man”. (Dan. 7:4). The next was “like a bear”, and the third “like a leopard”. Presumably these could, technically, have been translated originally as “Son of Lion, Son of Bear, Son of Leopard, just as the successor to the fourth beast was translated “Son of Man”. I say technically, and do not suggest this translation by any means. But this makes a significant point about the original meaning of the Aramaic “man-like figure”.

If the four beasts are 4 kingdoms (Dan. 7:17), is the Son of Man any different?

The original meaning of the Son of Man

When the Most High brings low the fourth beast, Daniel is told that at that time,

the kingdom and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people, the saints of the Most High . . . . (Daniel 7:27)

This verse is the angelic interpretation of the vision Daniel had seen of the one “like a Man” replacing the fourth beast:

I watched till the beast was slain, and its body destroyed and given to the burning flame . . . . I was watching in the night visions, and behold, one like the Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him, then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom . . . . (Daniel 7: 11-13)

It is thus not difficult to interpret the original meaning of the Son of Man as a symbolic reference to the Jews or the saints once liberated from the power of the Syrian empire, particularly from Antiochus Epiphanes.

But there’s (almost certainly) more

Place this interpretation beside that other Second Temple exegesis about the offering of Isaac at the time of the Maccabean martyrdoms: see Jesus displaces Isaac and the full set of my notes from Levenson at this archive.

From Levenson, we know we have are clear evidence of speculation about a resurrection of Isaac from his sacrifice among certain Jewish circles. We can also see in the original meaning of the Son of Man in Daniel that this figure could well represent the saints rising victorious to claim the kingdom after having suffered martyrdom at the hands of the fourth beast.

As the man-like figure became reinterpreted to refer to a singular heavenly being, one like the Son of Man, do not early Christian beliefs that the Son of Man was to be delivered up and crucified and rise again suggest the strong possibility that the original interpretation of this figure in Daniel, as one representing the persecuted yet ultimately victorious saints, also carried over with the personification of the term?

And not only the Christians

As John Ashton remarks, it is really difficult to know if the Son of Man figure in Daniel is meant to be seen as an evanescent dream like waif figure, or a real angelic being. Are the beast-like creatures really mere visions or is Daniel watching heavenly creatures act out what is to happen on earth?

If the latter, then it seems that the Son of Man was seen as a literal spiritual being who was to be identified with Christ.

But this sort of speculation and evolution of interpretations of Daniel was part and parcel of strands of Jewish thinking generally at the turn of the era. Christians had a complex Jewish heritage to draw on for their theological creations.

This is topic of the next post, Jesus in the Gospel of John — and Jewish Apocalyptic


2009/06/07

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

Updated 8th June with postscript


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

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

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

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

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

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

So back to this particular discussion of Joseph of Arimathea

Mark 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Matthew

Matthew 27

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

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

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

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

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

Comparing Luke

Luke 23

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

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

Comparing John

John 19

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

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

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

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

So what was wrong with Mark’s narrative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


P.S. — added 8th June:

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


2009/04/21

Gospel of Luke, reconciler of the Herod and Pilate gospel narratives?

Further thoughts from earlier post on rival gospel traditions. . . . .

It is easy to overlook that the gospels of John and Luke say that the Jews themselves, not Roman soldiers, crucified Jesus with Pilate’s permission. This is as is narrated in the Gospel of Peter and elsewhere, as per the above post.

Luke also, like the Gospel of Peter, assigns Herod a leading role in the circumstances of Christ’s death. In the following I’m assuming, as I have presented arguments elsewhere, both a late (second century) date for the gospels, and Luke being the last gospel written (as per Matson, Shellard, et al).

I am exploring here the possibility that while John was strongly influenced by the eastern narratives, it was the author of the Gospel of Luke who, after many who had composed narratives before him, attempted the most “catholic” (albeit anti-Marcionite and anti-Ebionite/Nazarene) gospel. Luke is famous for his introduction in which he declares that “many” have preceded him.  This alone points to a late date for the gospel.

If, as per Tyson et al, canonical Luke was composed in the mid second century, it is possible that the Gospel of Peter was known to its author.

John and Luke declare the Jews carried out the crucifixion:

John 19:14-16

And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priest answered, We have no king but Caesar. Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away.

(Thanks to Joe Wallack, who in a comment on the earlier post, alerted me to this John passage that prompted the thoughts of this post.)

Luke 23:24-36

And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will. And as they led him away, . . . .

Taking this passage in Luke “seriously”, as many like to say, will also prompt us to read more literally the passage in Acts where the Jews are declared to be the ones who crucified Jesus. After all, Acts was very likely written by the same final author of canonical (not the original) Luke (as discussed in my notes on Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts).

Acts 3:13-15

. . . his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; and killed the Prince of life . . .

Mark and Matthew say the Romans did it

Of course it is the narratives of Mark and Matthew that have carried the day and through which we too easily read John and Luke. We are also persuaded to read all four gospels through the perspectives of Mark and Matthew because they appear to be comport more closely to what would have been the historical reality of the event — if it were historical.

Mark 15:15-16

And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. And the soldiers led him away into the hall, called Praetorium; and they call together the whole band.

Matthew 27:24-27

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.

The Role of Herod vis a vis Pilate

The Gospel of Peter, and other writings associated more with the eastern Roman empire, agree with John and Luke. But they also say that Herod was the ruler primarily responsible for Christ’s execution.

The earliest gospel, Mark, makes three mentions of Herod or his supporters. Twice Mark speaks of the Pharisees and Herodians colluding to trap Jesus. The first time Jesus escaped their joint plot to kill him, and the last time he outwitted their envoys in a game of riddles:

Mark 3:6

And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

Mark 12:13

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.

In between Herod executed John the Baptist as a foreshadowing of the fate awaiting Jesus, and subsequently confused Jesus for John. (Mark 6

At the end of the gospel when Jesus is on trial the Pharisees and Herodians are nowhere to be seen. Their narrative function has been fulfilled. The climax of the gospel is when the Jerusalem and Roman leaders, the representatives of Jerusalem and Rome, take centre stage.

Matthew has nothing to add to what is written in Mark about Herod’s role.

Mounting anti-semitism

But Matthew does introduce a new anti-semitic twist. In Mark, Pilate relished the chance to please the Jews and deliver Jesus up to be crucified (see Mark 15:15 quoted above). Matthew changes Pilate to a “horribly nice” weakling and coward who declares himself innocent of the blood of Jesus, and who orders Jesus to be crucified (by his own soldiers) simply because he is haplessly intimidated by the loud noises from the crowd and the clenched teeth of their religious leaders. It is the Jews who let Pilate off the hook with “clean hands” by declaring,

His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27:25)

John’s gospel carries us further into the pit of anti-semitism. Of the Jews Jesus in GJohn says:

Ye are of your father the devil (John 8:44)

John’s gospel regularly identifies the persecutors of Jesus as “the Jews”.

The Gospel of Peter has been interpreted by many as firmly in the same swamp of anti-semitism as John and Matthew. I have prepared a table where one can see easily where and how the Gospel of Peter compares in this and other respects to the canonical gospels. See Gospel of Peter Compared with Canonical Gospels.

Gospel anti-semitism climaxes with Herod replacing Pilate in centre-stage?

At the same time the Gospel of Peter has removed Pilate from centre stage to make room for the Jewish “king”, Herod, to take direct responsibility, with the rest of the Jewish judges and people, for crucifying Christ.

Gospel of Peter, 1:1-2

…but of the Jews no one washed his hands, neither did Herod nor any one of his judges. Since they were [un]willing to wash, Pilate stood up. 2 Then Herod the king orders the Lord to be taken away, saying to them “Do what I commanded you to do to him.”

Enter canonical Luke

Luke’s gospel concedes, with Mark’s, that Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Unlike Mark’s gospel, however, Luke’s gospel portrays an uncowered Jesus who brazenly declares that Herod cannot kill him, at least not for a while.

Luke 13:31-33

The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

Then, just as in the Gospel of Peter, Luke presents Herod in Jerusalem at the time of the final Passover.

Luke 23:7-12

And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.

The Gospel of Peter paints a friendly relationship between Pilate and Herod. The disagreement over the justice of killing Jesus was not a big enough obstacle to come between them that way. In GPeter Herod addresses Pilate as “Brother”. Luke’s gospel points to the same relationship unfolding:

Luke 23:12

And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.

And as per the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Luke concurs that Herod at some point not only stood in judgment upon Jesus, but also

Luke 23:8-11

And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him. And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.

Compare Gospel of Peter 3:1-2 which describes the Jewish soldiers of Herod treating Jesus:

They took out the Lord and kept pushing him along as they ran; and they would say, “Let’s drag the son of God since we have him in our power.” And they threw a purple robe around him and made him sit upon the judgment seat and said, “Judge justly, King of Israel.” . . .

Luke has more to say about Herod’s encounter with Jesus, but unfortunately a corresponding section is missing from the Gospel of Peter.

It seems a nice fit to have the Gospel of Luke at the end of a long trajectory of gospels that

1. began in a Pauline-like gospel with Rome and Jerusalem colluding equally in the murder of the Christ (GMark),

2. reacted with a legalistic bend where Jesus was portrayed as a new Moses, while lurching towards anti-semitism that distanced Pilate from blood-guilt (GMatthew),

3. dived deeper into anti-semitism, while incorporating other aspects of the eastern/Asian Passover tradition, and in particular replacing the Roman executioners with Jewish ones, as per GPeter (GJohn)

(thanks to M. W. Nordbakke for alerting me to the common thread uniting the Gospels of John and Peter here in a comment on the earlier post)

4. Pulled the Roman governor out of the direct line of responsibility altogether by having the Jewish soldiers under Herod’s command, yet retaining a Psalm 2 type collusion between Jewish and gentile rulers (GPeter)

5. Restored Rome’s authority, but still gave the direct Christ-killer role to the Jewish soldiers, and still found room to maintain some of the Herod “tradition”, while also critiquing Matthew’s Mosaic legalistic type of Jesus, and perhaps even finding a place for elements of a birth narrative from the Proto Gospel of James (but that’s all another story) (GLuke).

And I can’t prove a bit of it. At least not yet. But it’s a start for something new to think about. :-)



2009/04/11

Rival gospel traditions: Herod or Pilate the executioner of Christ?

I listened in on a Good Friday service in St Joseph’s church in Singapore last night, while standing amidst hundreds of others holding magic or holy candles, and during the reading of the Gospel of John’s passion narrative I was struck to suddenly hear echoes of thematic details also found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter.

Now the Gospel of Peter is generally taken to have been written after the Gospel of John, but some have dated the Gospel of John towards the middle of the second century, and others have dated the Gospel of Peter to around the same period. What is a more tenable scenario, however, is that the “traditions” behind the Gospel of Peter do go back quite early. (See various online sources, including Wikipedia.)

I have compiled a comparative table of the Gospel of Peter with the canonical gospels.

Most of my argument assumes a late (very late – second century) dating of the gospels. I believe I can defend this view, and argue that most (not all) earlier datings rest more on apologetic assumptions and interpretations than hard evidence.

The common explanation for the variant view that Herod crucified Jesus is that it was an outgrowth of rising anti-semitism. That may be true. But there might also be another explanation – that the Herod story was the original one, and a more complex narrative involving Roman involvement was a later evolution. Either model will do — my views of rival narratives do not rely on either one.

One of the most significant differences is that in the Gospel of Peter it is Herod, the King of the Jews, who orders the crucifixion of Jesus, not the Roman Pilate. Pilate is clearly narrated as leaving Herod to carry out this deed. It is Jewish guards, not Roman soldiers, who do the dirty work. The same narrative appears to be in the mind of the Christian author who wrote the vision in The Ascension of Isaiah

And after this the adversary envied him and roused the children of Israel against him, not knowing who he was, and they delivered him to the king [presumably Herod], and crucified him. . . . (Ascension 11:19)

Justin Martyr, a church father who spent much time in the eastern churches (Syria, Samaria. . . ), who wrote about the middle of the second century, also believed it was Herod, not Pilate, who crucified Jesus. See my comparative table of Justin and the canonical and apocryphal gospels for details.

We also have the Slavonic Josephus with a Christian insertion that must be traced back to an eastern tradition that Pilate was bribed by the Jews (with 30 pieces of silver) to hand Jesus over to them for execution.

The teachers of the Law were [therefore] envenomed with envy and gave thirty talents to Pilate, in order that he should put him to death. And he, after he had taken [the money], gave them consent that they should themselves carry out their purpose. And they took him and crucified him according to the ancestral law.

See my earlier blog post Gospel of Peter and the Slavonic Josephus for discussion.

The Acts of Peter, from Asia Minor, may be assuming a similar narrative when we read:

Thou didst harden the heart of Herod . . . . thou didst give boldness unto Caiaphas, that he should deliver our Lord Jesus Christ unto the unrighteous multitude (Acts Peter VIII)

Eastern and Western rival narratives?

Was it an eastern “gospel tradition” that it was “the Jews” under their king Herod who crucified Jesus? Was the gospel tradition that became canonical, that Pilate killed Jesus, of western (Roman?) derivation? Was the eastern tradition expanded by what became the canonical gospel “tradition”, with the gospels of Mark and (canonical) Luke being western, even Roman, in origin? The Gospel of Matthew, I think, also assumed prominent status among western theologians. And was not John’s gospel on the cusp of the two — being traced to Asia Minor centres that were crossroads of dialogue between east and west?

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place heavy emphasis on the culpability of the Jews as Jews for the death of Jesus. “The Jews” are addressed as a race apart from Jesus.

Both the Gospels of John and Peter place extra heavy emphasis on Jesus’ death being the fulfilment of scriptures. (All the gospels do this to lesser and greater extents, but this trope is given particular emphasis in these two gospels, I think.)

But the alarm started ringing when I heard in the reading Pilate twice attempting to pass Jesus back to the Jews for punishment, with each attempt proving to be a narrative foil to explain why it really was Pilate, and not the Jews, who took over the role of crucifying Pilate.

Then Pilate said to them, “You take him and judge him according to your law.” Therefore the Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (John 18:31)

Therefore, when the chief priests and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “You take him and crucify him, for I find no fault in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” Therefore when Pilate heard that saying he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorium. . . (John 19:6-9)

Why does “John” introduce these exchanges? Is he attempting to rebut an alternative gospel tradition that it was indeed the Jews who crucified Christ?

Is he attempting to tackle head on what the Gospel of Mark had attempted to dismiss with a sideways glance? GMark told a story that while Herod (or Herodians) had sought to kill Jesus, Jesus eluded them.

Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against [Jesus], how they might destroy him. But Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea. (Mark 3:6-7)

The Gospel of Luke (which in its canonical form I often suspect is later than the other three gospels) addresses the issue with a revised narrative insert that might appear to explain how the confusion arose in the first place:

When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean.  And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.  And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.  And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.  And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate.  And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves. (Luke 23:6-12)

The advantage of the Pilate narrative?

If this was the case, and there was a rival narrative in which the Jews, led by their King and High Priest, crucified Jesus, how might we account for the eventual takeover by the canonical version?

One answer may be alluded to in another post of mine in which I discussed thoughts arising from two strange bedfellows: John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus and Michael Patella’s The Lord of the Cosmos. See Pilate and the Cosmic Order in Mark.

The canonical narrative with its complex interrelationship of Jewish and Roman court hearings is certainly a more sophisticated structure than the more direct linear tale of Herod killing Jesus. This alone might reasonably suggest it was of later origin. Add to this the apparent references in Mark, Luke and John (cited above) that appear to be in dialogue with another tradition. But we can’t be sure.

I would think that the canonical version involving Rome had the long-term sustainable advantage of bringing into the myth the notion of Jesus’ death being linked to a new cosmic order on earth (not just in heaven), and involved the spiritual overthrow of all earthly powers. Pilate, as the representative of Rome, and the close involvement of the Roman soldiers in his death, alongside Jewish culpability, broadened the message of the gospel into a well, more “catholic” one. It was more than an anti-semitic diatribe. Pilate’s reluctance, the centurion’s recognition of Jesus, the soldier’s role in opening up another “sign” of Jesus by piercing his side, — these introduced somewhat relatively more neutral (merely doing the job, not motivated by envy like the Jews) and “ready to be converted” non-Jews into a central gospel role.

The role of Rome also gave the gospel a clearer focus on “the cosmos”, the world, represented by Rome, and its leading role that emerged through the second century.

Besides, the gospels of Matthew and John preserved enough that was of value for anti-semitic fodder without the need for the blunter Gospel of Peter.

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me :-)

St Josephs on Good Friday, Singapore, where the above thoughts suddenly hit me :-)

2008/04/19

Why did no-one edit gospel gaffes about the Second Coming?

When prophecies of the end fail those who placed their hopes in them commonly attempt to explain and understand differently what they once expected to happen. When Christ failed to return to earth between March 1843 and March 1844, the schedule was re-written as April 1844. When that passed, it was revised again to October that year. After Christ failed to show up the third time, other groups insisted the date was right but they had misunderstood the event it marked: Seventh Day Adventists reinterpreted the event to a heavenly venue, unseen here below; Bahais claimed the advent happened in the form of Bab beginning his public teaching in Iran at that time. But many disappointed Millerites, not least Miller himself, turned their backs on specific event-based steps in a timetable and opted for the more general “Be ready; we don’t know when; he could come any time; we believe it will be in our life-time, but if not . . . .”

The question

Our earliest gospels are clear that Jesus promised an event of cosmic import in which he would “be seen” on earth again within the lifetime of his own generation. Thus in Matthew 24 we read:

Now as he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately . . . And Jesus answered and said to them . . .

Therefore when you see the Abomination of Desolation, spoken by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place . . . then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been seen since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be . . . Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his elect . . .

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled. . . . Therefore you . . . be ready, for the Son of Man is coming in an hour when you do not expect him.

Today popular understandings and many fundamentalist teachings find various ways to “see” subtle nuances in the text to enable them to apply Jesus’ promise to today’s generation. They cannot change the text, so they must find ways to read the text to remove its meaning from its original context and make it relevant to subsequent generations. The problem they face when they do this is that they can only hope to find tentative re-readings and subtleties in the hope of convincing themselves.

But the earliest transmitters of our gospels faced no such quandary. Even if the original authors did write within the life-times of Jesus’ generation, and had fully expected Jesus to swoop down visibly from heaven and bring fiery judgment to the entire world in their own time, those custodians of their narratives who soon followed them and succeeded that generation were living with the proof that such a prophecy had failed. Why is there no evidence that they attempted to re-write or re-interpret the literal import of the prophecy?

It took a long time after the gospels were first written before they achieved a sacred enough status to forbid copyists from re-writing or revising any awkward bits in them. When “Matthew” re-wrote “Mark”, for example, the opening account of John the Baptist was ruffled with a few extra lines to find a way for both John and Jesus to apologize to readers for letting the superior be baptized by the inferior:

Compare Mark 1:9

It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

with Matthew 3:12-15

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John . . . to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he allowed him.

But even within the one gospel we find evidence in the different manuscripts of attempts by various editors to re-write passages that were not congenial to someone’s theology, doctrinal tastes or were thought to be simply inaccurate:

  • Thus in Mark 10:19 some copyists simply dropped the “Do not defraud” command from Jesus’ citation from the Ten Commandments, presumably because it is not one of the Ten. The authors of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels likewise changed Mark’s original.
  • Not all scribes liked the text of Mark that claimed Jesus was a carpenter (Mark 6:3) so some changed it to read that he was thought to be the son of a carpenter. The church father Origen indicates that he did not know the passage familiar to most of us declaring that Jesus was a carpenter.
  • Similar variation in the texts surrounds the problematic circuitous itinerary of Jesus in Mark 7:31.

Most famously, we have among the manuscripts 4 different endings of the Gospel of Mark:

  1. And they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Vaticanus, Sinaiticus)
  2. And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. (Bobiensis . . . )
  3. Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping. And when they heard that He was alive, and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it. And after that, He appeared in a different form to two of them, while they were walking along on their way to the country. And they went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either. And afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. “And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. (Many manuscripts underpinning the Textus Receptus)
  4. And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or: does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now” — thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven. (Washingtonianus)

So there is little doubt that the early texts of the gospels were not, well, engraved in stone by the finger of God. Early generations found it permissible to re-touch them here and there for perceived inaccuracies, embarrassments, theological disagreements.

There was a time when there was time to likewise edit the prophecy of Jesus to make it less necessary to tax the interpretive ingenuities of subsequent generations.

Yet throughout the synoptic gospels and their textual variants the prophecy that Jesus is to be seen coming in judgment within the life-time of his original disciples does appear to be engraved in stone. There is no evidence of embarrassment attached to it during its transmission even after the first generation had passed away. (The Gospel of John’s complete omission of it is not evidence of embarrassment over its failure, as discussed below.)

The answer

They answer is, I believe, not novel, but not popular either. Yet the question raised above adds weight to its certainty.

The authors of the synoptics understood that they were adapting metaphors from their Jewish sources to an historical event that did happen within the lifespan of the generation of Jesus. There was no embarrassment over prophetic failure. They were writing in apocalyptic language about an historically apocalyptic event — the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. That is, the end of the old Jewish kingdom that had once been God’s, leaving the followers of Christ free to feel they had been vindicated as the new kingdom of God.

The apocalyptic signs Jesus’ disciples are told to expect are the same as used by earlier prophets to describe the historical fall of Babylon to invading armies:

The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw. . . . For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause its light to shine . . . . And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, . . . will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. (Isa. 13:1, 10, 19)

The author was writing from a time when Babylon was lying in ruins and describing in typical Jewish apocalyptic metaphors the fall and end of that great city-state and kingdom.

The same author describes the fall of other nations before imperial invasion in similar apocalyptic metaphors:

And the mountains shall be melted with their blood. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; all their host shall fall down as a leaf falls from the vine . . . (Isa. 34:3-4)

Another author uses the same metaphors to announce a historical judgment on Egypt:

Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say to him . . . When I put out your light, I will cover the heavens and make its stars dark: I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give her light. . . . (Ezek. 32:2, 7)

Joel describes an earlier military conquest of Israel in the same language:

The heavens tremble, the sun and moon grow dark, and the stars diminish their brightness. (Joel 2:10).

This is the Day of the Lord, when God is said to stand in Jerusalem itself:

For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will grow dark, and the stars will diminish their brightness. The Lord will also roar from Zion and utter his voice from Jerusalem . . . (Joel 3:14-15).

The image is metaphorical. The author does not visualize God literally standing on earth, or his voice being literally heard.

The author of Isaiah 52 also spoke of a generation, his own, seeing God at the time of the restoration of Israel (God’s “Servant” nation) under the Persians:

The Lord has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations (Isa. 52:10)

The appearance of God is apocalyptic, not literal, imagery.

David likewise wrote that he saw God descend to earth to rescue him out of threatening waters. No-one takes his poetry literally:

Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of heaven moved and shook . . . He bowed the heavens also and came down with darkness under his feet. He rode upon a cherub, and flew; and he was seen upon the wings of wind. . . . He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters. . . . (2 Samuel 22: 8, 10-11, 17).

The prophecy put into the mouth of Jesus by the gospel authors described the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple. This was the end of a world for most Jews at that time. A traumatic life-changing experience can result in an individual feeling as if his entire known world has vanished, as if he no longer has ground to walk on, or the sky above that he had known all his life to cover him. That, at least, is how I know I felt some years ago when passing through such a trauma. Apocalyptic language seemed to be the most apt way to describe the experience. It was real, if not literal, enough, to me. No doubt seeing ones world, one’s nation, proud capital city, the monumental centre and foundation of one’s faith, all crumble and be destroyed in blood by invading armies, brings apocalyptic imagery and interpretations most readily to mind.

Jesus was seen returning in judgment upon the city that had crucified him and persecuted his followers. He was seen coming down to that city in the Roman armies just as surely as God had been seen coming down in historical acts of vengeance by earlier prophets, including David.

The Gospel of John’s omission of the prophecy

It is significant, furthermore, to note that among early Christians, when the canonical gospels were still being written, it is clear that this prophecy of the cosmic second coming of Christ represented an alternative eschatological belief.

If we accept the arguments of those scholars that the author of the Gospel of John knew the Gospel of Mark, then we find that this author chose to deliberately omits the prophecy altogether. If he did not know the synoptics, then he knew many of the “traditions” that found their way into the synoptics, yet not this end-time prophecy of Jesus. Either way, there can be little doubt that he would have found such a prophecy pointless because he disagreed with its fundamental doctrinal assumptions. Rather than judgment coming upon the world and the gathering of the saints all happening in a future cosmic event, these things befell the world from the moment Jesus was crucified:

Now is the judgment of the world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself. (John 12:31-32)

Whether or not this author knew Mark, he holds to a theology that renders Mark’s prophecy of end times redundant. It is not a bed-rock of Christian faith like the crucifixion is, however that be interpreted, but an optional extra. You are free to wear it if it fits. If the authors of the synoptic gospels saw the replacement of the earthly Jerusalem by the spiritual kingdom of God as fulfilled in 70 c.e., John saw its complete fulfilment 40 years earlier.

The irony

It is ironical that many Christians who read Jesus’ prophecy of his “second coming” literally also stress the importance of understanding Jewish as opposed to Greek or gentile thought when interpreting the Bible, yet fail to do so themselves in this instance.

2007/08/05

Novelistic plot and motifs in the Gospel of John

Filed under: Gospel of John,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 4:44 pm

“The narrative of the Fourth Gospel is a synthesis of two distinct stories — the cosmological tale and the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth — into one coherent narrative.” (Jo-Ann A. Brant, Divine Birth and Apparent Parents: The Plot of the Fourth Gospel, in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative.)

The following notes, based principally on Jo-Ann Brant’s articles (the one above and Husband Hunting: Characterization and Narrative Art in the Gospel of John, in Biblical Interpretation, 1996, 205-223), looks at some ways the Gospel of John appears to draw on novelistic motifs and plots to construct it theological narrative. How the author mixes honey with his medicine. (more…)

2007/04/07

Pharisees in Galilee?

In my “dating the gospels late” post I made a few statements that would appear outrageous to some. Rather than attempt to answer some of the objections raised in the tiny comments box I am opting to make separate posts justifying the points I made.

Pharisee from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Here I cite reasons for claiming one anachronism in the gospels: Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees in Galilee. Though there may have been the odd Pharisee in Galilee prior to 70 ce the impression given by the gospels that they were a significant presence there is unlikely historically — for the following reasons: (more…)

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