Vridar

2013/05/15

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

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

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

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

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

2012/11/21

The assumption of orality behind written texts

Filed under: Oral Tradition — Neil Godfrey @ 6:01 am
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Traveling again, but have brought along with me for spare-time reading Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 by Barry W. Henaut. Henaut argues in depth something many of us have surely wondered about from time to time. How can we really be so sure of an oral tradition behind our canonical Gospels? Have scholars really examined closely the literary forms against what is known of oral practices and truly eliminated the likelihood of literary creations?

Henaut does just such a close examination of the text of Mark against the various theories and research related to oral transmission. He demonstrates that many of those supposedly distinctly oral features of the Gospel of Mark are more simply explained as illustrations of the common techniques of ancient literary practices. At the same time he shows the inadequacies of several of the oral hypotheses to explain them.

I am unable at the moment to post details, but here are a few pointers of interest: (more…)

2012/09/23

Mark’s Parables as Simonian Allegories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012/08/25

Understanding Mark’s Jesus through Philo’s Moses?

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

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

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

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

Start with the Transfiguration

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

2012/08/11

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ — Introduction

Filed under: Thompson: Not the Carpenter? — Neil Godfrey @ 1:20 pm
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What is the significance of the title of this book edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna. The subtitle is “The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus” — “of the Figure of”, not “of Jesus”. Perhaps that helps guard the book from being seen as too bluntly opening up the Christ Myth question. The main title comes from Mark 6:1-6 —

And he went out from thence; and he cometh into his own country; and his disciples follow him.

2 And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, Whence hath this man these things? and, What is the wisdom that is given unto this man, and what mean such mighty works wrought by his hands?

3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him.

4 And Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

5 And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages teaching.  (ASV)

Now the themes latent in this passage and that are drawn out in this introduction are the same ones that led me to launch one of my very first diffident attempts to explore questions of historicity in an academic forum in 1998: Re: Jesus the Carpenter? in Crosstalk. Fourteen years later I am reading the same question, with the same implications for the historicity of the exchange between Jesus and his neighbours, being raised not by an amateur outsider in an open scholarly forum but by scholars in a book so prohibitively expensive that it is beyond the reach of the general reader — and with a clear warning that I am not to reproduce any of it for wider sharing, without even the usual allowance of short passages for reviews.

Nonetheless, this Introduction chapter has been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation — even complete with its annoying “itinerate” typo.  (And given that it is already online I trust I have a right to quote passages from it here.) So you can go there and read what Thompson and Verenna write for themselves or stay here and read what I say they write, with some of my own commentary. ;-) (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…)

2012/07/25

Mark’s (Unclean) Bartimaeus and Plato’s (Honoured) Timaeus

Filed under: Burton Mack,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 6:38 am
Tags: , , , , , ,
English: Close-up of Eric Gill relief, Moorfie...

English: Close-up of Eric Gill relief, Moorfields Eye Hospital The words here,’Domine, ut videam’ (Lord, that I may see!), comprised the answer, according to the Gospel of Mark, to Jesus’s question to the blind beggar Bartimaeus who called out to him in Jericho. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have always been shy of accepting the argument one sometimes reads that the blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark came by his unusual name (along with its unusual manner of its explanation) from the influence of Plato’s Timaeus.

But a passage in Earle Hilgert’s chapter, “The Son of Timaeus: Blindness, Sight, Ascent, Vision in Mark”, in Reimagining Christian Origins has for the first time opened my mind to the possibility that Plato’s famous work could be behind the name after all. (I’m not saying I am sure it is. Only that I am more open to the possibility.)

After discussing the usual things I have read before in favour of the connection — that Plato’s Timaeus includes a lot of discussion about eyesight and its ability to lead us through observation of those mysterious moving lights seen above the world to come to know the great Eternal Truths of God — Hilgert writes this:

Runia has identified some dozen passages in Philo which are clearly influenced by this encomium, not to speak of its broader impact on Hellenistic thought. Of the Timaeus as a whole, he declares,

Its influence inevitably filtered down to men of letters and even those who had received only a smattering of learning. Indeed the Timaeus was the only Greek prose work that up to the third century A.D. every educated man could be presumed to have read.

In view of such widespread conversance in the Hellenistic world with the Timaeus and with its praise of eyesight, we should not be surprised if Mark reflects acquaintance with it. (pp. 190-191)

Now I’ve been trapped. I have been catching up with some background reading to Hilgert’s chapter — Burton Mack’s 1972 Studia Philonica article and chapters by Hilgert, Mack and others in The School of Moses: Studies in Philo and Hellenistic Religion — with a particular interest in the question of any direct or indirect relationship between what we read by Philo and in the Gospel of Mark. I had not till now fully appreciated the extent of the influence of the Timaeus apparently even in the time of the Gospel’s composition. I would like to track down the evidence on which Runia’s Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus. Hopefully the Google preview will give me enough detail to satisfy my curiosity.

A multilingual pun

Another detail Hilgert goes on to mention is something I know I must have read in Burton Mack’s Myth of Innocence some years ago but had unfortunately forgotten: (more…)

2012/06/20

Is the Gospel of Mark Creatively Emulating Philo’s Life of Moses?

Filed under: Burton Mack,Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 7:30 am
Tags: , ,

Moses Jesus action figures

Did the Jewish philosopher Philo influence the story-line and character-portrayals that we read in the Gospel of Mark? I cannot yet commit myself to believing he did but I am keen to follow up the question since encountering it in Reimagining Christian Origins: A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack. (Mack, of course, is famous for his works on Christian origins and particularly on the Gospel of Mark.) Specifically it was in chapter 11, “The Son of Timaeus: Blindness, Sight, Ascent, Vision in Mark” by Earle Hilgert. He writes on page 187:

Particularly in the thought of Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E. to c. 50 C.E.) the myth of ascent vision combines with the epic figures of Israel’s history, who are seen as models of this experience. As models, they are to be imitated; thus their stories become stories of the psyche, paradigms of the possibilities available to the individual. Mack has pointed out a striking formal parallel between Philo’s De Vita Mosis and the Gospel of Mark.

The work by Mack cited here is “Imitatio Mosis: Patterns of Cosmology and Soteriology in the Hellenistic Synagogue,” Studia Philonica, 1 (1972): 34. Since I do not have access to this article I decided to refresh my memory of Philo’s Life of Moses and compare with the Gospel of Mark myself. But Earle Hilgert does give us a head start when he lists the main points of apparent contact between the two works according to Mack:

Life of Moses 1 Gospel of Mark
The call-vision of Moses at the burning bush (1.65-70) The call vision of Jesus at his baptism
The secret announcement to the elders of Israel of an impending departure to a better land (1.86) Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom
The legitimization of Moses’ authority through miracles (1.91-139) Jesus’ miracles
Moses’ ascent and admission to the presence of God on Sinai — a model for all who are willing to copy (1.158) Jesus’ transfiguration
The journey through wilderness with its trials (1.164, 171, 183) The journey to Jerusalem
Moses’ ascent to heaven at his death (2.288-91) melded with his ascent to the divine presence at Sinai Jesus’ paradigmatic death

That’s Burton Mack and Earle Hilgert. My own reflections follow. The purpose of the following is not to argue dogmatically a particular point. It is to invite anyone interested into a consideration of another way of thinking about an old question, and that need not be limited to a direct cause and effect option.

(more…)

2012/06/15

Why many historical Jesus Scholars NEED John to Baptize Jesus

Baptism of Jesus, Bordone, Giotto 1276-1336

Baptism of Jesus, Bordone, Giotto 1276-1336 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Associate Professor of New Testament Leif E. Vaage argues that New Testament scholars have no valid reasons for believing that John the Baptist really did baptize Jesus. (Vaage, let the reader understand, is by no means denying the historicity of Jesus himself.)

Vaage argues that the author of the Gospel of Mark invented the entire scene of Jesus’ baptism. I am keen to post his reasons for this conclusion. Some of them overlap with suggestions I have advanced in earlier posts on this blog. This post, however, will outline only what Vaage sees as the flaws in the widely held belief that John historically baptized Jesus.

In his chapter “Bird-watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11” in Reimagining Christian Origins Vaage writes:

That the historical Jesus was baptized by the historical John is still taken by many scholars to be simply a historical fact: as sure an assumption as any can be on the basis of the canonical Gospel narratives. The reasons for this assumption, however, and furthermore its presumed importance (primarily for characterization of the historical Jesus) are essentially theological . . . . (p. 281, my emphasis)

Why theological?

. . . . as the historical Jesus would thereby evidently no longer be “just” the momentary embodiment of the orthodox second person of the Trinity.

The baptism scene is the anchor that holds Jesus down in history. Without it, we have only tales about one who is all too easily understood as nothing other than a nonhistorical man-divinity. (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…)

2012/05/06

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria

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

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

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

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

2012/05/05

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 2

Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Troja...

Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Trojan city. Oil on canvas, 1815. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post continues my notes from Adam Winn’s book that he produced from a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the Dominican Biblical Institute, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative : considering the practice of Greco-Roman imitation in the search for Markan source material. The first post explained why Winn believes a study of the ways in which the Roman poet Virgil imitated and rewrote Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in order to compose his own epic, the Aeneid, has potential relevance for a study of how the author of the Gospel of Mark might have used his written sources.

We outlined two of Virgil’s techniques of imitation in that first post, conflation and reversal, and in this post we look at the other techniques. A third post will list and explain criteria Winn will propose to assist us in analysing the Gospel’s literary sources.

Diffusion

Diffusion refers to Virgil’s technique of taking a single episode or character from his source (Homer) and dividing it into multiple episodes or characters. To illustrate this technique Winn points to the way Virgil has based three different characters on aspects of the life (or rather death) of one person in Homer’s Odyssey, Elpenor.

  • Elpenor was the youngest of Odysseus’s crew. While on Circe’s island he climbed up to a roof-top to sleep, but in the morning he forgot where he was and fell to his death.
  • Odysseus, leaving in haste to carry out his mission to visit Hades, was unaware of his fate. In Hades Elpenor’s ghost was the first one Odysseus met. Elpenor explained how he died and begged Odysseus return to where he died and give him a proper burial.
  • Odysseus carried out Elpenor’s wishes. He returned to Circe’s island to carry out Elpenor’s wishes. Odysseus mourned, cut logs for a pyre, burned the body and erected a grave marked with an oar.

1. Virgil used the Elpenor narrative as his template for the death of Palinurus.

  • At sea Palinurus, the helmsman, fell asleep and thus fell to his death in the sea.
  • When Aeneas, like Odysseus, visited Hades, Palinurus was the first to meet him. Like Elpenor, Palinurus told Aeneas how he had died and also begged for a burial. But Virgil never recounts Aeneas burying Palinurus.

2. In Virgil’s epic, the Sybil oracle instructed Aeneas to bury Misenus before he attempted to enter Hades. This Aeneas did. He found the body, mourned, cut logs for a pyre, then erected a grave marked with an oar.

3. Homer’s epic portrayed Odysseus returning from Hades to bury Elpenor. Virgil did not depict Aeneas burying Palinurus, but he did have Aeneas, on his return from Hades, burying his nurse, Caieta.

In Virgil’s imitation of the Homeric episode of Elpenor, we see Virgil using imitative techniques we have not yet seen . . . He essentially turns one Homeric character into three, i.e., Elpenor becomes Palinurus, Misenus, and Caieta. He also takes the events of one Homeric episode and diffuses them into three different episodes. (p. 29)

Compare what we find in the Gospel of Mark. (more…)

2012/05/02

Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • specific agreement in details/order
  • strong verbal agreement

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

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

The way forward

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

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

2012/03/23

Jesus’ Journey Into Hell and Back — told symbolically in the Gospel of Mark?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:59 am
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Roger Parvus has posted an intriguing comment about the Gospel of Mark’s narrative of Jesus casting out of the “Legion” of devils (the story where he sends them all into a herd of pigs who then run off a cliff and drown) on Tim Widowfield’s discussion of Wrede’s Messianic Secret. He wonders if the story is in fact a parable or metaphor for Jesus descending to Hell — something we read about cryptically in other parts of the New Testament.

It is a fascinating possibility. Note that the author of Mark’s Gospel claims that Jesus always spoke in a parable of some sort to his disciples (Mark 4:34) and some scholars have even suggested that the entire Gospel narrative itself was written as a “parable” of the Christian’s destiny and way of life — that is, even the acts of Jesus are symbolic. This idea is supported by the clearly symbolic features of a number of the stories, such as Jesus in something of a joint-action healing a woman who had endured a blood-disease for 12 years while raising from a sleep or death a 12 year old (pubescent) girl. The author also curiously “explains” that the disciples were in shock on seeing Jesus walk on water because they had failed to understand the miracles of the feeding of multitudes with a few loaves and having so many baskets of scraps left over (Mark 6:51-52). There are mysteries in the narratives and sayings in Mark’s Gospel that are lost to us now.

Before I quote here Roger Parvus’s comment, I will quote an extract from another scholar who has broached the same idea that the scene of the exorcism of Legion is a metaphor for Jesus’ despoiling of the demons in Hell:

Eric C. Stewart (Gathered around Jesus: An Alternative Spatial Practice in the Gospel of Mark, pp. 261-2 — a University of Notre Dame thesis) refers to a study that argues Jesus’ voyage to the Gadarenes — where he exorcises the man possessed by Legion — is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar that were considered the gateways to land of the dead. (I have reformatted the paragraph for easier reading and added hyperlinks to the biblical references.)

Roy Kotansky argues that the story of the Gerasene demoniac is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar at the edge of the world.837

He first notes that the “other side” in Mark 4:35 has as its antecedent the sea in Mark 3:7.838 This sea is not identified in 3:7 as the Sea of Galilee. Kotansky argues that this sea should be read as the Mediterranean rather than the Sea of Galilee.839 The trip, then, becomes a voyage to the “Other Side,” that is, to the edges of the oikoumene. “Accordingly, all the sea-crossings of both miracle catenae, at least in the mythic imagination, are to be construed as true sea-voyages; their destinations, when recorded, will not tally well with known geographies of the circum-Galilean region.”840 (more…)

2012/03/02

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (3)

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Wrede: Messianic Secret — Tim Widowfield @ 1:00 am
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William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 3:  Introduction

Gospels are stories

Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Eva...

Illuminated Manuscript, Ethiopian Gospels, Evangelist portrait of Mark, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.850, fol. 60v (Photo credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts)

In the previous installment, we read through the front matter of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret. This time, we’re going to look at the Introduction, which while technically part of the front matter, is a meaty chapter unto itself.

Quite recently, Neil remarked on this blog:

The most striking thing that hit me in Richard Carrier’s online discussions or articles on Bayes’ theorem was the point that one needs to stop and distinguish between whether we know X happened (e.g. someone saw an empty tomb) or whether what we know is that we have A STORY THAT SAYS X happened.

Apparently, we’re still re-learning the things that Wrede said over a century ago. Indicting the current “defective critical method,” he wrote:

First of all, it is indeed an axiom of historical criticism in general that what we have before us is actually just a later narrator’s conception of Jesus’ life and that this conception is not identical with the thing itself. But the axiom exercises much too little influence. (p. 5, emphasis original)

The story is not the event. The map is not the territory. He then drives the point home even harder, declaring: (more…)

2012/02/27

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (2)

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Wrede: Messianic Secret — Tim Widowfield @ 8:56 am
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William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

English: William Wrede (1859-1906) Deutsch: Wi...

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Part 2: Front Matter

A turning point in the quest

In the first installment, we introduced Wrede’s watershed book on the Gospel of Mark. And watershed is a fairly apt description of The Messianic Secret, since for many scholars it marks a turning point in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. In fact, as you may recall, Albert Schweitzer subtitled his classic work on the quest: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. For Schweitzer (and many others), Wrede signaled the end of the first quest.

If Wrede’s contributions to New Testament studies had such an impact, you would think today’s scholars wouldn’t simply skim over the Messianic Secret, concluding with a dismissive “Nobody believes that anymore.” Even if that were true, we should still like to know why he made such an impact in his day. What was it about the book that caused such a stir when it was published? Why did it have such a lasting effect on NT studies through most of the 20th century? The only way to be sure, I think, is to read Wrede’s work for ourselves. (more…)

2012/01/14

How Historians Work — Lessons for historical Jesus scholars

Recently a theologian kindly advised me to do a bit of background reading on how historians work (specifically to read chapter one of From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods by Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier) in order to come to see that historical Jesus scholars do work by the same principles that all other historians generally use.

As I recall, after the last time you claimed . . . that New Testament scholars working on historical questions use different methods than other historians, or that I had failed to adequately articulate my methods and those of the guild, I referred you to Howell and Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources. Chapter One would serve you well, and get you clued in on the basics that seem to still elude you. (Comment by Dr James McGrath)

But chapter one addresses only the nature of what is widely called “primary sources” by historians (archaeological remains and direct testimonies, including oral reports. This chapter focusses

exclusively on the type of resources that most other research guides call primary sources. (From Review by Ronald H. Fritze in The Sixteenth Century Journal XXXIII/4 (2002), p. 1248)

This is the very evidence we lack for historical Jesus studies.

But chapter two does indeed address in detail how historians should approach the written sources (in this case “secondary sources”) we do have for Jesus.

Misunderstood lesson from Chapter One

Unfortunately my theologian advisor had not read chapter two and insisted that it really was chapter one that I needed to read because, he explained, it mentioned “oral traditions”. Sorry, sir, but that chapter does not as far as I can see use the phrase “oral traditions”, though it does speak of orality as a primary source — that is, it refers to genuinely oral communication as heard by the researcher in the here and now. The chapter thus refers to “oral reports”, “oral evidence”, “oral sources”, “oral communication”, “oral acts”, “oral witnessing”.  HJ scholars do not have any evidence like this for Jesus. The early Christian evidence is all written and literary, not oral, and it is all secondary, not primary. If there had been any oral reports relaying the narratives of Christianity before the Gospels appeared they are all lost now and researchers must rely upon secondary written evidence alone. They may attempt to uncover what they believe are “oral traditions” behind that secondary written source but that is not the type of primary “oral source” that Howell and Prevenier (H&P) are discussing in chapter one. The only sources available are written and secondary.

But even here in this discussion of primary sources a critical principle is stressed: (more…)

2012/01/07

If Adam and Eve are metaphors why not . . . . ?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 10:20 am
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Painting from Manafi al-Hayawan (The Useful An...

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If my good nemisis can re-use one of my posts I suppose I can pinch from one of his that is recycled from James Spinti’s blog.

Whoever wrote the Adam and Eve story in Genesis was “clearly inviting” his readers to understand it as metaphor.

[The names Adam and Eve] literally are ‘Humanity’ and ‘Life’. Few readers of the English Bible are aware of this connection, and thus they fail to realize how the text itself invites them to see these characters less as historical figures and more as metaphorical representations of the human race. Once one understands the driving metaphor we are expelled from paradise, however, suddenly the remainder of Genesis and even our own lives make much more sense.

Agreed wholeheartedly.

Now consider our earliest Gospel, that of Mark: (more…)

2011/12/28

The earliest gospels 3 — Gospel of Mark (according to P.L. Couchoud)

Couchoud’s take on the Gospel of Mark follows. This post should be seen as a continuation of the previous three. (That is, it’s take on the Gospel of Mark is entirely my understanding of Paul Louis Couchoud’s analysis of this gospel as a reaction to what he believes to have been the original Gospel produced by Marcion. Quotation page references are from Couchoud’s “The Creation of Christ”.)

Like Marcion’s gospel there is no mention of an author — “unless ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ is intended to give the author” (p. 170). Couchoud earlier made the point that Marcion’s gospel was likewise anonymous and if pushed his followers would say it was “Christ’s” gospel.

It is possible that this gospel was written in Latin (Ephrem’s note), or was composed with a Latin and a Greek version. The surviving manuscripts are in poor condition with the original ending lost. (I do not believe the original ending was ever lost, but I am keeping my own views quiet while I focus on staging those of Couchoud for now.) (more…)

2011/10/18

Jesus: the Same in both Paul and the Gospels

Filed under: Jesus,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 7:59 am
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Revised and updated 3 hours after original posting.

Both the letters of Paul and the narrative in the Gospels speak of Jesus crucified. Jesus’ death is significant. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus’ blood and Paul refers often to his blood. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke in particular stress his birth from a woman and we find a passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians saying Jesus was born of a woman. The Synoptic Gospels indicate Jesus was descended from David and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we likewise read Jesus was connected with David.

The contexts are quite different, of course. The Gospels are portraying a past narrative of an earthly mission of Jesus and Paul is addressing Jesus’ saving power in the “here and now and soon to be”.

And all of those references to Jesus’ crucifixion, blood, Davidic relationship, flesh, etc are derived from the same source. They are all speaking about the same thing. (more…)

2011/10/12

The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)

Posted 6pm. Updated 8:30 pm with note on Thompson’s argument that baptism is a reiteration of OT narratives

Rudolf_Bultmann

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Every so often scholars stumble over evidence that what they are reading in the Gospels is based not on historical events but on theological creativity but they never seem to mind. They nearly always pick themselves up, dust themselves off and look around declaring, “Didn’t hurt a bit” before continuing on their way as if nothing had ever happened.

Not so long ago I wrote a few posts on Bishop John Shelby’s Spong’s arguments that most of what we read in the Gospels is fictional midrash. (Even Dale C. Allison uses that “m” word to describe some of the same narratives in his Constructing Jesus — pp. 448, 451 —  so I guess scholars who object to mythicists using the word ‘midrash’ should have a quiet word with their mainstream counterparts who carelessly encourage them.) The point is that even though Spong argued Gospel stories were not historical memories, he nonetheless insisted that there was a historical foundation to them all. He’s not alone. Dennis MacDonald has argued that many scenarios in the Gospel of Mark are adaptations of scenes in the Homeric epics but he, too, makes a point of explicitly stating that he does not believe Jesus himself is a fiction.

So one feels immersed in familiar waters when reading a 1963 translation of the third edition (1958) of Rudolf Bultmann’s  The History of the Synoptic Tradition (originally published 1921) and finds Bultmann likewise being quick to declare that, despite all the legendary or mythical features of Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, he nonetheless is not so sceptical  as to deny that John really and truly did baptize Jesus.

Without disputing the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John,2 the story as we have it must be classified as legend. (p. 247)

If our earliest record of an event is legend then on what grounds do we decide not to question its historicity?

But even more intriguing is an attached footnote that reads:

2 I cannot share the scepticism of E. Meyer, Ursprung u. Anfaenge d. Christent., I, 1921, pp. 83f.  Indeed Acts 1037f, 1324f. prove that the historical fact of Jesus’ baptism is not necessary for linking the ministry of Jesus to John’s; yet not that this linking must be made by the story of a baptism, or that it could only be made if the baptism of Jesus were not an actual historical fact.

So my recent post about three modern scholars who are sceptical about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John — Bill Arnal, Leif E. Vaage and Burton Mack — are nothing novel. So the scholarly doubt is at least as old as 1921.

So what was Bultmann’s finding that led him to decide the account of Jesus’ baptism was not historical (even though he still believed the event was historical anyway)? (more…)

2011/10/07

More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scene’s can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

(more…)

2011/10/02

That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark: fleeing naked and sitting in the tomb

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Young man in the tomb — Neil Godfrey @ 2:13 pm
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Baptism of Christ. Fresco in Cappadocia

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An old (1973) article in the Journal of Biblical Literature by Robin Scroggs and Kent I. Groff make a case that the young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and the young man (reappearing?) in the tomb to announce Jesus’ resurrection were originally created as symbols of the baptism ritual for new converts to Christianity.

The young man having his linen cloak (σινδόν / sindon) snatched from him is substituted by Jesus who is entering into his “baptism” of suffering, death and burial — as depicted by Jesus himself being wrapped in a σινδόν/sindon for burial. The young man then reappears in the tomb, sitting on the right side, clothed in white like Jesus at the transfiguration. These narrative scenes find their meaning in the baptism ritual of early Christians: the initiate first removed his garment and entered the baptism naked and was then given a new robe to symbolize a new life in the resurrected Christ. (more…)

2011/09/19

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

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

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

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

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

2011/09/05

Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark

This church converted to a blues night club was once called The Healer and was once a favorite place of mine -- A pity they changed the name.

Classicist John Moles presents a case for the Gospels making creative use of the name of Jesus in order to drive home its unique status as the power that tends, cleanses, heals and saves. In the Gospel of Mark — the portion of his Histos article I am addressing in this post — this creative play on the name of Jesus culminates in the final crucifixion and resurrection scenes where the name emerges as a saving healing power of cosmic proportions.

John Moles is examining the common classical use of literary puns as found in early Christian literature. He draws our attention to the meaning of the name of Jesus itself (the name itself, not the person) and how this is played with for theological purposes by literary composers.

I have given my reasons for thinking of the Gospels as something akin to parabolic or metaphorical narratives. Jesus and the disciples, especially in the Gospel of Mark, can be read very easily as two-dimensional ciphers to dramatize theological lessons. (I am aware that much secular ancient literature was not strong on building three-dimensional characters but the Gospels, I believe, go beyond this.) So this article by John Moles has my mind racing across those earlier thoughts. What was in the minds of the evangelists? Was “Mark” imagining he was writing about a real person or was he creating a character to represent a theological name of powerful import to the faithful? Now this is not of itself a mythicist argument. (And John Moles himself is definitely not a mythicist.) The same question could well be raised of an author who was writing in response to a faith that in other ways was derived directly from a historical person, but for whom that historical person was lost and replaced by a “Christ of faith” idea. If any conclusions are to be drawn either way then they must be led by other evidence in addition to, or that otherwise embraces any argument in relation to, the literary one. So let’s just focus on the nature of the literary qualities in relation to the name of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as presented in his fascinating article.

In the following I will add my own comments in italics to my notes from Moles’ article. My own notes will probably often veer from the single theme Moles adheres to in his article. (more…)

2011/08/23

A scholar reads Paul without Gospel presuppositions

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Paul and his letters — Neil Godfrey @ 1:13 pm
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The Last Supper

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Not every scholar thinks it is silly to read Paul’s letters without bringing to them assumptions from later documents like the Gospels. Some think it is a sounder method to interpret the later literature in the light of what we can understand from what went before it — and not the reverse.

Associate Professor William Arnal is one scholar who does know how to avoid bringing Gospel presuppositions into his reading of Paul’s letters. What he does in “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition” (Toronto Journal of Theology, 13/2, 1997, pp. 201-226) is use earlier sources to try to shed light on how the Gospel narrative came about.

Paul’s famous passage in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 about the Last Supper saying of Jesus is often pulled out as evidence that Paul knew about the scene we read in the Gospels of Jesus having a final meal with his disciples just prior to being betrayed by Judas. But that is reading the evidence backwards, Arnal rightly argues. First we need to understand what Paul does say, and then compare with the later narrative in the Gospels, and ask what evidence we have to explain the relationship between the two. (more…)

2011/08/18

Why Mark Created a Gospel Role for Pilate

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 9:57 pm
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Wenceslas Hollar - Jesus before Pilate 2

Jesus before Pilate : Image via Wikipedia

The earliest Christian records make no mention of Pilate. It is only with the composition of the Gospel of Mark that he first appears. And when he does appear, he is certainly not the bloodily efficient “historical Pilate” but almost a hapless figure who has no argument with Jesus at all.  Thinking through the narrative of Mark’s Gospel while walking home from work this afternoon it suddenly occurred to me that Pilate’s appearance fits a tidy theological-literary pattern that is introduced and sustained throughout the first part of the Gospel. Mark wouldn’t be Mark if he didn’t have a balancing book-end arrangement so that this pattern is repeated at the end to complete the full impact of his theological message.

Pilate missing from the earliest record

The New Testament epistles (excepting the Pastorals) are earlier than the Gospels according to widespread scholarly agreement. There are only two passages in these epistles that identifies those responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion:

  1. 1 Corinthians 2:8  — “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
  2. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 —  “. . . the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus . . .” (more…)

2011/07/09

The Markan Legacy: A Myth of Innocence

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Mack: Myth of Innocence — Neil Godfrey @ 5:39 pm
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In A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins Burton L. Mack crudely summarizes what he sees as the legacy Mark’s Gospel in the form of the Christian myth that has become the lens through which Western (particularly American) culture has viewed the world:

The Markan legacy is a myth of innocence that separates those who belong to the righteous kingdom within from those without. The boundaries, however, are not at all static. The borders shift as conflicts arise both within and without. Separation occurs when the mission to convert the other is thwarted. Judgments fall to support the righteous cause as justified and the recalcitrant other as wrong. A period of time is devoted to patient proclamation, but an either/or approach to issues excludes the middle range of compromise. Conversion means loyalty to the cause of the righteous; rejection means consignment to the forces of opposition. Ultimately, should the mission be threatened with failure, victims may be sacrificed. That is because the cause is righteous and must somehow prevail. The sign of failure, a crucifixion, also serves as the sign of victory. If all else fails, both martyrdom and the destruction of the wicked can be imagined as the means for vindicating the cause and trusting in the power of God to resurrect a new creation from the ashes. (p. 372)

I don’t know if this view is a pop rationalization or if it has roots in serious psycho-sociological research. (I suspect it too glibly side-steps politico-economic structures and universal geopolitical realities, as well as something distinctively Manichaean within America’s soul) But it sounds plausible and interesting. Broken down it looks like this: (more…)

2011/07/08

The (Literary) Servant in Isaiah and (the Literary) Jesus in the Gospels

Filed under: Isaiah — Neil Godfrey @ 8:07 pm
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Some thoughts that occurred to me after reading Ulrich Berges’ article that I outlined in the previous post – – –

One sees in Isaiah an overlap between the Servant as Israel and the Servant who is the personal prophet, or more strictly the personification representing a prophetic community.

Such a literary technique — constructing or attributing to a literary persona the issues and experiences being grappled with by the authorial community — is not unique to Isaiah. It is found in relation to David, Jeremiah, Judith, Daniel, Ezra, the mourner in Lamentations.

One sees an overlap between Jesus as an epitome of Israel at the opening of the Gospel of Mark (going along with the majority view of this Gospel being the first written of the canonical Gospels) and Jesus as a unique person, too. (more…)

2011/06/02

The story of Jesus: History or Theology?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Kelber: Mark's story of Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 8:51 pm
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One of the most interesting and easiest-to-read studies of the Gospel of Mark I have ever read is Werner H. Kelber’s Mark’s Story of Jesus. In this book he shows readers that the apparent random crossings back and forth across the “Sea of Galilee” by Jesus are not so random after all, but are really ciphers for a very cogent theological message.

Sea voyages 1 and 2

Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum in Galilee, and his first crossing of the “Sea of Galilee” is from that Jewish territory (after having taught his many parables to his Jewish audience in Mark 4, and which he said they would not understand anyway) across to the other side where Gentiles lived, “the region of Garasenes/Gadarenes/Gergesenes” — Mark 5:1. (more…)

2011/03/07

When literary analysis trumps historical analysis

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

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

2011/02/09

Bartimaeus continued: If the disciples be fictional, what be their leader?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 9:21 pm
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"Lord, that I might see!"

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There are two accounts in Mark’s Gospel of restoring the sight of blind men. The first one, two-staged healing that took place at Bethsaida, was discussed here. Much of the following is owed to the discussion by Vernon K. Robbins in that linked post, even at points where I do not explicitly state this.

In that first healing it is clear that the placement of the story within the narrative structure brings out the symbolic meaning of the miracle. One can readily recognize the symbolic suggestiveness of the restoration of sight being worked out in two stages, as discussed in the previous post. Here is a recap the structural placement of the Bethsaida healing:

A: First there is Jesus’ reminding his disciples of his two attempts to open their eyes to spiritual understanding

8:17 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? 18 Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?”

They said to Him, “Twelve.”

20 “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?”

And they said, “Seven.”

21 So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”

B: Then comes the two-stage healing of the blind man at Bethsaida — in secret, away from the crowds (more…)

2011/02/08

Jesus, bearing the diseases he had healed?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 8:51 pm
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Jesus scourged. Marillier. In the Bowyer Bible...

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I used to wonder if whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark intended to have Jesus in the last half of the Gospel largely reverse the role he had carved out in the first part of the Gospel.

The gospel is characterized by reversals and ironies at many points. The one who raised the dead dies, but is resurrected, too. Demons recognize who he is but his disciples fail to do so, yet when they finally do their leader himself is rebuked as a “Satan”. The way to gain one’s life is to lose it. Those commanded to silence speak, and those who are commanded to speak are silent. Jesus performs great miracles in Galilee, but when he reaches Jerusalem as the Messianic King he is powerless, rejected and slain.

Jesus is portrayed as the Son of God (cum “son of man”) until he reaches Jerusalem. He casts out the hidden demonic rulers of the world and releases those who had been held captive to their power, either with sin, sickness or outright possession. (Illnesses were believed to be caused by demons.)

The first miraculous act by Jesus when he begins his mission in Capernaum is an exorcism of a man in a synagogue. The moment of the evil spirit departing is described as follows:

And when the unclean spirit had convulsed him and cried out with a loud voice, he came out of him. (Mark 1:26)

The moment of Jesus’ death is not unlike the signs of an exorcism, with a loud shout and exiting of one’s spirit or breath: (more…)

Blind Bartimaeus: some meanings of the story surrounding his healing

 

Christ cures Bartimaeus. Kussell. In the Bowye...

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Slightly revised 9th Feb. 2010, 3pm

John Spong finishes off his chapter (in Jesus for the Non-Religious) about healings by discussing the healing of blind Bartimaeus as found in the Gospel of Mark and healing of the man born blind in the Gospel of John. I’ll be sharing material from an old article by Vernon K. Robbins about Mark’s treatment of the Bartimaeus episode. Spong covers much the same theme but in less depth. (The article I use is The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature, June 1973, Vol. 92, Issue 2, pp. 224-243.) Will also draw on Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.

The story of Bartimaeus is constructed to inform readers that Jesus is greater than the traditional idea of the Son of David. The details of the story serve only to point out the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of discipleship. The healing of blindness is only the symbolic way in which these messages are conveyed. Take away the theological meanings of the story and it becomes a meaningless tale. There are no details left over that give us any reason to suppose that the story was ever anything more than a symbolic or parabolic fiction.

This is the story (Mark 10:46-52) (more…)

2011/02/05

Jesus was not a healer (2)

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Spong: Jesus Non Religious — Neil Godfrey @ 4:50 pm
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Following on here from my earlier post.

As noted in my previous post, Matthew and Luke inform us directly that the miracles of Jesus were for the purpose of identifying Jesus as the Messiah in accordance with the prophecies in Isaiah.

We may, if we wish, speculate that there really were a set of healings performed by charismatic, shaman-like person and that gospel authors completely re-imagined the way these occurred and subsumed those imaginative reconstructions beneath their primary interest of writing a narrative to demonstrate prophetic fulfilments of Isaiah, but that can never be anything more than idle speculation. We have no evidence for such historical antecedents so let’s work with the evidence we do have.

As the discussion following my previous post on this topic shows I have discussed this several times before with detailed analyses of certain miracles (particularly in Mark’s gospel) showing they were intended to be read not as literal events but as symbolic of theological messages. This post draws heavily on Bishop Spong’s perspective of the same argument as found in his Jesus For the Non-Religious. Of the passages in Luke and Matthew in which Jesus is quoted as telling the messengers of John the Baptist that the miracles are signs that he is the Messiah, Spong writes: (more…)

2011/01/29

The First Gospel was a Jewish Novel?

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

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

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

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

What indicates a particular genre? (more…)

2011/01/20

Second thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as Biography

Below Trash and Vaudeville and along the wall ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011/01/18

Did not even John the Baptist recognize Jesus at the Jordan River?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,John the Baptist — Neil Godfrey @ 10:40 pm
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Geertgen tot Sint Jans (15th century): "John the Baptist"

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Mark’s gospel makes little sense if read as literal history, but it packs a powerful punch when read with a mind swept clean of all the other gospel accounts.

The punch the Gospel of Mark hit me with recently was its sentence noting John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. It’s bizarre if we try to read it as biography or history. But it makes for a great symbolic message about the identity and function of Jesus.

The Gospel begins with John declaring that one far greater than he is to come from God and cover his followers not with water but with the holy spirit. The preamble has informed readers that this coming one is to be the one of whom the Prophets said is the Lord himself. Everyone came out repenting and being baptized.

Then Jesus came along and John baptized him too.

And that’s it. Mark gives not the slightest hint that John baulked and said, Hey, you’re the one! Nope. It’s as if Jesus was the last in line and John routinely baptized him like all the rest.

Then up from the water came Jesus and “he” (only) saw the spirit descending to him like a dove. No one else saw this or the heavens splitting apart, and no-one but Jesus heard the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son.

This is strange. It is especially strange if, as many modern interpreters like to think, Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist.

No, what Mark is doing here is entirely at a literary level. (more…)

2010/12/26

Do Mark’s Primitive Language, Aramaicisms and Theology Really Argue for Markan Priority?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 10:06 am
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The relationships between the three synoptic g...
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This series of posts (previous one here) on Dungan’s summary of arguments for the Gospel of Mark being the last of the canonical Gospels to have been composed is contrarily working backwards. My first post (the one previous to this) outlined Dungan’s final points in his chapter. I am saving his “first points” for last. They address an interesting phenomenon in biblical studies that mythicists certainly know exists among these scholarly ranks: winning arguments by means of ad hominem attacks and declaring the opposition “long since defeated” when it has merely been ignored. (Well what do you expect from a vestigial religion study from medieval days?) And don’t forget the circular reasoning that becomes so embedded in the conventional wisdom that most who read it tend to be hypnotized by the spiral and come to believe they are travelling through the straightest of tunnels.

But to continue here with one of Dungan’s argument for Markan posteriority from somewhere in the middle of his discussion . . . .

Dungan structures his discussion on Mark being the last written of the canonical Gospels around B. H. Streeter’s formulations. In chapter 7, The Fundamental Solution, of The Four Gospels (1924),

The primitive character of Mark is further shown by

(a) the use of phrases likely to cause offence, which are omitted or toned down in the other Gospels,
(b) roughness of style and grammar, and the preservation of Aramaic words.

Since these are generalized headings Dungan zeroes in on some of Streeter’s specifics that fall under them. One is Streeter’s explanation for Matthew’s and Luke’s “improvements on Mark” is that they “have a reverential motive”. Again from the same link to chapter 7 above, Streeter wrote: (more…)

2010/12/24

Why might Mark want to abridge the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 11:40 am
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Johann Jakob Griesbach

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There is nothing . . . improbable that for certain purposes an abbreviated version of the Gospel might be desired; but only a lunatic would leave out Matthew’s account of the Infancy, the Sermon on the Mount, and practically all the parables. (Canon Streeter, The Four Gospels, p. 158, cited in Dungan . . .)

David Laird Dungan cited the above passage from Canon Streeter’s The Four Gospels, p. 158, in his chapter in Jesus and Man’s Hope.

Marcion’s example

Dungan does proceed to offer evidence from the second century Patristic writings that someone really might have written an abbreviated Gospel that removed all the birth narrative and a very large portion of the teachings of Jesus. He quotes Irenaeus:

[Marcion] mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord . . . (Against Heresies, 1:27:2)

And from the fourth century, Epiphanius:

For indeed [Marcion’s] Gospel appears to resemble Luke, but having neither beginning, middle, nor end [!], giving the appearance of a garment gnawed by many moths (Pan. adv. Haer. 42.11 — Dungan’s quotation, with his emphasis)

The mistake of assuming a single Gospel trajectory (more…)

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