Vridar

2013/01/26

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus, part 4 of 4 (John Dominic Crossan)

Filed under: Crossan: Power of Parable — Neil Godfrey @ 2:24 pm
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powerparableLet’s conclude this series on John Dominic Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable. Last time we looked at the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; this time Luke-Acts and John.

Crossan argues that the Gospels are not histories or biographies of Jesus but are fictional parables and Jesus is their central character. Now Crossan does not doubt that there was a real, historical Jesus. But you won’t find him in the Gospels, he says, at least not on a face-value reading of them. To see Crossan’s arguments that Jesus was indeed historical (even though the most important evidence about him is fictional) see the first post in this series: Crossan’s Proofs That Jesus Did Exist. (Did you “find it persuasive”? Nor did I.)

(For the uninitiated, “Find it persuasive” is a stock phrase used by biblical scholars to apply in the positive or negative to arguments they do or do not like. It replaces the tedious need to find an evidence-based and logically valid argument to address a view that supports or contradicts one’s personal beliefs and tastes.)

Question:

If the authors of the Gospels wrote fiction about Jesus, is it necessary to postulate an historical Jesus to explain the Gospels?

Now this question is more than just a “mythicist” question. Of course it has implications for the question of whether or not there ever was an historical Jesus. But can’t we ask that same question without any of the mythicist-historicist invective we have come to expect of it? Forget the mythical-historical Jesus debate. Let’s address the evidence, the Gospels, without fear or favour. First things first.

So let’s start with Crossan’s discussion of Luke-Acts.

In what sense is Luke-Acts a parable about Jesus and not a biography or history of Jesus? (more…)

2012/10/21

Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and OT: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary

As signalled in a comment on my recent post on the single authorship of Genesis to 2 Kings, I have decided it best to back-track a little before continuing that series and posting a little on how oral tradition came to be a ruling paradigm among Biblical scholars and why an increasing number of scholars, especially those who study the Gospels, are coming to question whether it has any place at all in the creation of the biblical stories. This post begins to cover Thomas L. Brodie’s chapter, “Oral Tradition: Wonderfully Plausible but Radically Problematic”, in The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of New Testament Writings.

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There was a time when the gospels were seen as the product of writing — of competent authors using some ancient form of pen and writing materials. It was presumed that the evangelists [i.e. gospel authors] had either been present at many of the events they described (like Matthew and John) or had received their information from authoritative sources (Mark from Peter, and Luke perhaps partly from Paul.) (p. 51, The Birthing of the New Testament, by Thomas L. Brodie)

Given that the time-gap between the events narrated and the gospels was at most fifty or sixty years, it was understood that eye-witness testimony in some form (oral or written) was available to even the latest of evangelists.

Hermann Gunkel

Enter Oral Tradition as the New Paradigm

Julius Wellhausen in 1876 made mention of oral tradition but it was Hermann Gunkel in his 1901 commentary on Genesis who

used it as a model and who thus introduced it to the center of biblical studies.

Gunkel went against the perceptions of those who had gone before by failing to see Genesis as artistic literature. Further, Gunkel implied that his model “could be applied to the life of Jesus.” (Brodie, p. 51)

In effect, he gave the twentieth century a new paradigm.

The Gospels become UNliterary

Soon the new idea of “form criticism” began to appear in New Testament studies. Wellhausen went beyond Gunkel’s implication and secured a central role for oral tradition in Jesus studies with his series of commentaries and introductions to the gospels 1905-1911. Bultmann summarized Wellhausen’s contribution:

The oldest tradition consisted almost entirely of small fragments . . . and did not present a continuous story of . . . Jesus. When these fragments were collected they were connected so as to form a continuous narrative. . . [Wellhausen] showed not only that they evangelists’ narratives . . . were secondary, but also that oral tradition was steadily producing more and more new sayings of Jesus. (Bultmann, 1926, quoted on p. 51 Birthing of the New Testament)

K. L. Schmidt introduced the model of the Gospel of Mark that has been widely embraced among scholars up to today and that has been discussed in recent posts reviewing Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity:

In 1919 he used Gunkel’s model to distinguish between Mark’s framework, which Schmidt reckoned came from the evangelist, and Mark’s various units, which Schmidt assigned to oral tradition . . . (more…)

2012/09/10

How Might Marcionite Questions Affect Mythicism? (Bob Price in “Is This Not the Carpenter?”)

This post concludes my treatment of chapter 6 of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” by Robert M. Price.

Price concludes his article with a discussion of the place Marcion might have had in the history of gospel origins. Specifically, what if Marcion was responsible for much of the Pauline corpus or even wrote the letters himself? Would not this mean that the Gospels preceded Paul’s letters and would not one of the “pillars of the Christ Myth hypothesis” fall?

What follows is my outline of Price’s argument.

The conventional view of Marcion is that he appears controversially armed with a number of letters of Paul and a single Gospel. This Gospel, we are usually informed, was a shorter version of what we know as the Gospel of Luke, Marcion having deleted from the original Gospel all the passages he believed were falsely interpolated contrary to the original faith taught by Paul.

There have been other opinions. Some have argued that Marcion’s gospel was for most part an original and early version of what became our Gospel of Luke, an Ur-Lukas. Paul-Louis Couchoud argued this. More recently, Matthias Klinghardt argued a similar case. (Hence my previous post.) Price does not mention Joseph Tyson here, but he also argued much the same, and I linked to that series of posts on his book in my post on Klinghardt’s argument. The idea of a Proto-Luke stands independently of any Marcionite association, however. It has been argued by B. F. Streeter (link is to the full text online) and Vincent Taylor. G. R. S. Mead suggested Marcion had no Gospel but but only a collection of sayings, not unlike Q.

So what to make of this diversity of opinion over what Marcion actually possessed? Price has a suggestion: (more…)

2012/02/04

Marcion’s authorship of his Gospel – an overlooked question

Professor Markus Vinzent has posted on his blog  Marcion’s authorship of his Gospel – an overlooked question, an article that directs readers to a re-consideration of the ideas of Paul Louis Couchoud that I have recently been outlining here. Past scholarship has always taken for granted the claim of Irenaeus that Marcion found and edited an existing Gospel. Professor Vinzent finds only two exceptions in the literature to this view and one of them is Couchoud.

And there is the poet Paul-Louis Couchoud (1879-1959), professor of philosophy and scholar at the Ecole Normale, Paris who, very different from Vogels’ Germanic cautious suggestion, developed a full ‘outline of the beginnings of Christianity’ in his The Creation of Christ (excerpts, a good summary and comments can be found here), based on the idea of a Christ-myth which was turned into a historical Gospel-narrative by Marcion in the years 128-129. And although scholars may rightly reject most of the wild speculations of Couchoud, a critical reading of him is extremely rewarding. He knew his sources and he was prepared to unearth and make fresh and unorthodox connections which even today can inspire serious scholarship. Why has scholarship not picked up the question of Marcion’s authorship – irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees on it?

Couchoud’s view is debatable (see, for example Roger Parvus’s remarks at https://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/pre-christian-beginnings-of-christianity-couchoud/#comment-22543) but I fully concur with Markus Vinzent’s observation:

And although scholars may rightly reject most of the wild speculations of Couchoud, a critical reading of him is extremely rewarding. He knew his sources and he was prepared to unearth and make fresh and unorthodox connections which even today can inspire serious scholarship.

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2012/01/26

Historian Demolishes Historical Jesus – Gospel Paradigm

Hopi

Hopi: Image via Wikipedia

Sorry about the sensationalist headline but, being a mortal, I couldn’t resist it this time. (I know one swallow doth not a summer make, but humour me till the rest turn up.)

I wish to thank Dr James McGrath, Clarence Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, for drawing my attention to a case study published by oral historian Jan Vansina in Oral Tradition as History (1985). (Note I used italics instead of quotation marks for the title this time so that there can be no doubt that I have actually read the book.) {for the uninitiated the link is to Dr McGrath’s post in which he points out that my earlier use of quotation marks for the title of the book is a “suspicious” indicator I had not read it}

Most students and many interested lay readers of New Testament scholarship know that there are two things that are generally accepted in the guild:

  1. the first gospel was composed roughly around 40 years after the death of Jesus
  2. the first gospel is more about a “Jesus of faith” than an historical Jesus since it is so riddled with mythological embellishments

In this post I show that a renowned oral historian publishes a case study that demonstrates the unlikelihood that mythological embellishments could possibly have been added to an “oral report” within 40 years of the event.

So what might the research of oral historians contribute to this critical NT and HJ discussion?

Keep in mind that an axiom of the historical Jesus scholarly guild is that the first Gospel — usually taken to be that of Mark, though some say Matthew, but for our purposes no matter which — is not to be taken as a straight historical record of the words and deeds of Jesus. It is filled, we are told (as if we needed to be reminded when we read of walking on water, talking to Being in heaven, predictions that the central character will descend from heaven in cataclysmic judgment, etc) with mythological embellishments. That is the very reason why, we are told, historical Jesus scholars cannot work like other historians but must assume the role of “detectives” and come up with additional criteria to convince the sceptics. (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…)

2011/09/01

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…)

2011/08/05

Messiahs, Midrash and Mythemes — more comparisons with the Gospels

6th August: expanded “the trial” comparison into “The face to face confrontation of secular and religious leaders

Comparing other rabbinic midrash with the Gospels

In my previous post I covered Galit Hasan-Rokem’s comparisons of some early Christian and rabbinic midrash. In this post I comment on Hasan-Rokem’s discussions of other tales in the midrash of Lamentations Rabbah and draw my own comparisons with the Gospels.

An image of the French philosopher, Claude Lév...

Claude Lévi-Strauss: Image via Wikipedia

The second rabbinic story of a Messiah discussed by Hasan-Rokem is one about the death of “King Messiah” Bar Kochba. Here the messiah is the villain. (Rabbinic sources subsequently referred to him as Bar Kozeba, Son of Lies.) I think there are a number of interesting plot and motif similarities here, just as there are between the messiah birth narratives of the Christian and rabbinic literature and that were detailed in the previous post. But what makes the overlaps interesting is considering an explanation for them through the constructs of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. If this turns out to be an invalid process, invalidly applied, fair enough. But let’s see what it might possibly suggest till then.

The midrashic tale is found in full (and re-edited) in the last half of the post titled Birth and Death of the Messiah: Two Jewish Midrash Tales (and have since copied it again at the end of this post, too.)

First, the common elements. I can see about 20. Some are more “distinctly defining” attributes that signal a common idea than others: #10 and #17 are surely tell-tale (DNA-linking) ones. (more…)

2011/08/04

Midrash and the Gospels 2: debates in the scholarly sphere

Filed under: Midrash — Neil Godfrey @ 1:21 pm
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(Added a paragraph commentary in the “proves historicity” section about half an hour after original posting.)

New Testament scholars do not speak with one voice when it comes to applying the word “midrash” to the Gospels. Some have resolutely opposed the idea; others take its justification in their stride. In this post I would like to demonstrate something of the fact of this diversity of opinion as I encountered it on a yahoo! group for informal scholarly discussion  about the historical Jesus, Crosstalk (1998/9) and its successor, Crosstalk2 (current).

The last exemplar I include is one that is argued not only Jack Kilmon (and John Spong), but also by Earl Doherty — though Jack himself may not like the association. But the argument almost necessarily follows in some manner from any proposition that any of the Gospel narratives are midrash.

That the Gospels contain/consist of Midrash

Jack Kilmon: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/1490

I think the virgin birth thingy got started with the Matthean scribe in his zeal for OT attestation. Not being Semitic competent, the Matthean scribe used the LXX for Isaiah which translates the ALMAH as PARTHENOS. From that point, I believe the Matthean scribe was engaging in midrash. (more…)

2011/02/25

How to read the Gospels

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011/02/20

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

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

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

2011/02/19

Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth

Statue of Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museums.

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

2011/01/06

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

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of...

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

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

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

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

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

2010/08/09

Gospel myth – Atlantis myth: Two “Noble Lies”

Filed under: Historiography — Neil Godfrey @ 12:32 am
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Lloyd K. Townsend illustrates Atlantis
Image via Wikipedia

Okay, I’m sure there will be a few differences if I stop to think seriously about it, but I have just read the introduction in Benjamin Jowett’s Critias by Plato in which are cited the reasons Plato’s lies have managed to convince so many people of the historical truth of the myth of Atlantis. And hoo boy, how can anyone fail to notice certain echoes of the arguments used — even by professional scholars! — to argue for the historicity, and even the contemporary sophistication, of the gospels?

He begins:

No one knew better than Plato how to invent ‘a noble lie’.

I skip here the earlier discussion found in the companion treatise, Timaeus, in which Plato’s character Socrates explains the necessity for a myth or lie such as that of Atlantis. So here are the ten reasons Jowett cites for why so many generations have fallen into the trap of thinking the tale of Atlantis was based on something historical. I add a few remarks to draw attention here and there to their similarity to arguments even biblical scholars (not only fundamentalist lay people) have advanced to justify acceptance of the Gospels themselves as reflecting some genuine historical reality. (more…)

2010/03/01

3 Unquestioned Assumptions of Historical Jesus Studies

In The Burial of Jesus James McGrath gives an introduction to the methods of scholars who study the Gospels as sources of historical evidence about Jesus.

Note how, throughout, this method assumes:

  1. That there is an historical Jesus to talk about;
  2. That there was an oral tradition that relayed information about this historical Jesus to other audiences;
  3. That the gospels relied on these traditions, at least in part, for their narratives about Jesus.

As stories were retold in and applied to new contexts, they were often shaped by that process, and sometimes the use to which a saying or story was put in between its first telling and its being written down has left its mark on some of the details. Thus there are different levels to the gospels incorporated in the Synoptic Gospels:

(1) There is the teaching of Jesus

(2) which was retold and passed on orally (and/or in written form) in the church before

(3) being placed in the written form accessible to us by the authors of the Gospels.

We need to keep these different levels in mind if we want to understand the Gospels. Similarly, in every story there are two levels that we may relate to, one or both of which may have influenced the present form of the narrative in important ways:

(1) The historical level, in which Jesus said or did such and such, and

(2) the contextual level, in which the Gospel writer (or someone at an earlier time) applied this tradition about Jesus to needs and situations in his own time and church.

. . . .  The historian is interested in getting back behind the text, using the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier.

. . . . The historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind a text to see what if anything can be determined about actual historical events.

. . . . If one wants to ascertain what we can know about Jesus as a historical figure “beyond reasonable doubt,” then historical study is the only way to accomplish that.

. . . . The aim of all this is to uncover a core of information regarding Jesus that most historians, regardless of background or religious upbringing, should be able to agree is authentic. (pp. 55-58)

When it is said that the historian seeks to get back “behind” the text of the Gospels, what is implied is that the text is itself an attempt (at least in part) to record information derived from traditions that are to be traced back to the historical Jesus.

These assumptions, according to this method, are prerequisites “if we want to understand the Gospels”.

Certainly form criticism can claim to have traced certain Gospel sayings back to “originals”. But this method is not evidence of the hypothesis of oral transmissions, but a conclusion based on its presumption.

An Alternative that is thus excluded

(more…)

2009/12/07

The Missing Testimony of the Earliest Gospel

Now that's what I call missing.
Image by robpatrick via Flickr

Of all the debates and controversies surrounding the Gospel of Mark, the one I find the most teasing is its absence from the record when it was supposed to be present.

No explicit clues till mid second century

There is no explicit hint that it was known to anyone until around 140 c.e. when Justin Martyr spoke of the names of three disciples being changed by divine fiat. It is widely assumed that he is referring to the passage in Mark that speaks of this.

140 c.e. is two generations after the date most New Testament scholars suggest it was composed.

But those scholars who still argue that Mark was the last composed of the canonical gospels appear to be a small minority now. At least one exponent of this late date that I have read seems to have a Church-based confessional interest in arguing this point and maintaining the argument for the primacy of Matthew.

But there is little doubt among most scholars, it seems from the range of literature and discussions I have encountered, that Matthew and Luke knew about Mark’s gospel, and used large chunks of it. Some strongly argue that John’s gospel also shows signs of using Mark. So whatever date we assign for Mark’s first appearance into the world, we need to allow room for the other gospels to follow.

Why the need to reuse Mark?

But why would Matthew and Luke lean so heavily on Mark when they clearly had a different agenda about Jesus, his teaching and his disciples to push? (Here I’m thinking within the parameters of my previous post, Tactics of Religious Innovation.) Mark’s gospel was originally almost certainly “Separationist“. (See also my Jesus nobody post.) Jesus the man was just a man, while the Son of God was a heavenly spirit that entered and possessed that man at baptism, but left him at the crucifixion, presumably reuniting with him in the resurrection.

So why would Matthew and Luke, pioneers of what became the orthodoxy, ever rely so heavily on Mark and bother to re-write him? Why not create alternative “correct” gospels without the taint of such an opposing theological agenda?

Does not heavy reliance on Mark imply that Mark was very well and widely known, and that it had a widespread authoritative status? Does it suggest that the authors of the later gospels felt a need to take on Mark and use his gospel against his theology? Was anything as innovative as a new gospel from scratch so unlikely to take hold that it was simply a non-starter? Was Mark so well established that subtly rewriting it, and expanding on it in ways that subtly overturned its message, the only opening for rival theologians?

But if it were so well grounded as the earliest gospel and for some time the only gospel, how is it we hear nothing of it — and that is only a hint of it — until the mid-second century c.e.?

Matthew or Matthew’s matrix?

Another significant fact is that early church documents show a decided preference for the Gospel of Matthew. But this is an interpretation of the evidence. There is a wealth of evidence for early church documents citing passages that also appear in Matthew.

How can we be sure that these sources really are quoting “our Matthew” rather than a collection of sayings, or that they are not simply drawing on a cloud of sayings in the culture that were later set down in Matthew’s gospel?

Mid second century Justin Martyr speaks of the Memoirs of the Apostles, and the little he speaks of their contents matches material in our canonical gospels. And when he describes the birth of Jesus he comes tantalizingly close to something we read in Matthew’s gospel, but he also even more frustratingly moves away from Matthew’s account and brings in other images from his interpretation of the prophets. In fact, his whole birth narrative is, not unlike Matthew’s, openly drawn from his interpretation of the Old Testament prophets. He does not appear to be citing a gospel or Memoir of an Apostle at all.

The earliest indisputable evidence

The earliest overt evidence we have of Mark’s gospel itself is from the first harmony of the four gospels to have been composed. This was by Tatian, sometime between 160 and 175 it is believed. So when we first see Mark clearly we also see the other canonical gospels at the same time — in a gospel harmony. And this is up to three generations after the gospels are widely assumed to have been composed.

One more question before I go

Now another question. Tatian’s harmony is touted as the earliest gospel harmony. Can we really imagine no widely distributed harmony following the appearance of four varying and contradictory gospels until after the passing of three generations?

It is human nature to establish patterns in what we see. We are creatures that like to tie things together as well as blow them apart. We don’t like leaving loose threads or contradictions hanging. I would think a harmony would be the very next publication to follow any general awareness and overlapping acceptances of four different gospels.

It is generally accepted that Mark was written soon after or around the time of the first Judean rebellion against Rome (around 70 c.e.) — the one led by Simon and John. Is it just barely conceivable that it was rather written soon after or around the time of the second Judean rebellion instead (around 135 c.e.) — the one led by Simon Bar Kochba?

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