Vridar

2012/10/26

Oral Tradition is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels

This post concludes Thomas Brodie’s critique of the role oral tradition has played in Biblical studies, especially with respect to accounting for the Gospel narratives about Jesus. It is taken from chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings.

Even if a hypothesis is unclear in its foundation, and even if in practice there are serious difficulties with getting it to work, perhaps in some way it is still the only apparent response to a real need. It is appropriate therefore to ask whether the hypothesis of oral tradition is necessary to New Testament studies. (p. 60)

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.Reasons for seeing Oral Tradition as Necessary. .Thomas Brodie’s responses.
“Gospel texts follow the rhythms of oral speech.” “Oral rhythms do not require reliance on oral tradition.
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“Oral rhythms are a quality of both oral communication and much writing, especially ancient writing.”
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“Someone sitting silently at a computer can compose oral rhythms with a view to being heard by the ear.”
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“The variations between the gospels correspond to the variations that occur in oral communication.” This looks plausible at first glance.
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But look closely at the differences between the gospels and one begins to see a very deliberate variation governed by a quite different and coherent theological strategy.
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Differences that arise through oral transmission alone are not like this; they are accidental and haphazard.
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Oral tradition fills the gap between the historical Jesus and the Gospels. “Oral tradition may or may not assure more historicity.
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“From a historical point of view, the ideal is that the evangelist is an eye-witness to the gospel events – thus needing no tradition whatever – or else speaks directly to such a witness.
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Interjecting an unpredictable chain of communication into a period of less than a lifetime has the effect not of promoting claims to historicity, but of dissipating them.”
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Besides, it is “not appropriate” (I would say it is “invalid”) that “a desire for a particular type of historical conclusion should predetermine the idea of how the gospels were composed.”
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If the idea of oral tradition is to stand, it must stand on its own inherent merits.
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“Oral tradition is embedded in the fabric of New Testament studies, in the prevailing paradigm, and, for the moment at least, there is no alternative paradigm to replace it.” “It is true that oral tradition has been embedded in the fabric of NT studies and is central to the prevailing paradigm. But that situation is changing rapidly.
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“The literary approach, despite its teething problems – its occasional obscurity, pretentiousness, and narrowness – is not an esoteric game.
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“Rather, the literary approach provides the context which, when developed, offers the best prospect for future research. It restores the writings to their role as literature, even sacred literature, and it does not exclude theology and historical investigation. On the contrary, it sets history and theology on a firmer footing.”
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The Gospels portray scenes of people speaking, often in the open air. It is a scene of oral simplicity.“Such simplicity corresponds with the simplicity suggested by oral tradition.” True, the gospels do depict scenes of simplicity far removed, most often, from the world of writing.
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“However, the fact that a scene is rustic need not mean that the artist who portrays it is rustic. A film, for instance, may portray rural life but be produced in the countryside by city dwellers using highly technical methods. Likewise, the simplicity portrayed in the gospels need not indicate the way the gospels were composed.”
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(The quotations are from pages 60 and 61 of The Birthing of the New Testament. Formatting is my own.) (more…)

2012/10/25

Oral Tradition in NT Studies is Unworkable

Thomas Brodie has shown that the theory that the Gospel narratives began as oral traditions is not founded on valid logical argument. Nonetheless, he recognizes that an idea that rests on little more than mere presumption “may still be useful as a working hypothesis.” So he proceeds to explore whether the theory of oral tradition works in New Testament studies. What follows is from Brodie’s chapter 6 of The Birthing the New Testament — all posts archived here.

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First, here’s a chart of the arguments attempting to explain how oral tradition worked — as covered by Brodie. He covers many scholars in quick succession and it can be a bit numbing for someone wanting a quick blog read and who is unfamiliar with the topic to take it all in very easily. I use the many colourful images that have arise in the various attempts to explain how oral tradition is supposed to work:

(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…)

2012/08/30

Did Jesus exist for minimalist and Jesus Process member Philip Davies?

Emeritus Professor Philip Davies has not been able to “resist making a contribution to the recent spate of exchanges between scholars about the existence of Jesus” in an opinion piece titled Did Jesus Exist? on The Bible and Interpretation website. It is a question that he says “has always been lurking within New Testament scholarship generally”, though the occasion of his essay appears to be the recent set of exchanges over the views of Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and Thomas L. Thompson on that website along with some thoughts on the recently released ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’.

(Since Davies was also announced as a member of The Jesus Process (c) (TJP), it is encouraging to see someone from that august body addressing the tactic of the gutter rhetoric that we have endured recently from other TJP members Joseph Hoffmann, Maurice Casey and Stephanie Fisher. It would be nice to hope that Davies’ article can mark a turn for the better from that quarter at least.)

Philip Davies is (in)famous for his 1992 publication In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (partly outlined on vridar.info) that is reputed to have brought “minimalist” arguments on the Old Testament to a wider scholarly (and public) awareness. In Did Jesus Exist? Davies says he has “often thought how a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament, and in particular the ‘historical Jesus’”, and infers that the collection of articles in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ is an appropriate way to open the question.

(I don’t think it is all that difficult to apply a “minimalist” approach to the New Testament: it’s a simple matter of approaching the data with the same logical validity and consistency — the avoidance of circularity [and circularity of method is confessed by several historical Jesus/NT scholars] in particular. The hard part is in acknowledging the circularity given our cultural conditioning.)

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NT studies “not a normal case”, ad hominem rhetoric, and hope

He points out that what is uncontroversial in any other field of ancient history runs into trouble when suggested in the field of New Testament studies (my emphasis): (more…)

2012/02/29

Mark Goodacre, Criteriology, and the “Appearance” of Science

In his latest podcast Mark Goodacre turns his attention to the problem of applying criteria selectively after the fact:

. . . I think that there can then be problems when one tries to make historical Jesus criteria like multiple attestation, like the criterion of embarrassment, do too much. When you take them beyond the introductory student level, into mainstream work on the historical Jesus — because after all historians don’t work with a great big tool bag of criteria.  Historians don’t, you know, hold up a tradition and say, “OK, let’s kind of dig into the bag and see if we can find a criterion that satisfies this tradition.”  

I just don’t think that’s how historians work a lot of the time.  History’s much more complex than that.  It’s more nuanced; it’s more detailed.  We’re looking at things in all sorts of different ways.  And so I think we have to be a little bit careful about the way that we react to these kind of criteria.  They can be terribly wooden.  They can be excuses often not to think very clearly.

And worst of all, sometimes what historians of the New Testament — sometimes what historical Jesus scholars do — is they’ll take a tradition they rather like the look of subjectively and then they’ll find some criteria that they can use to make it sound like it’s more plausibly historical.  So the criteria are often applied after the fact, rather than before the fact.  So there’s sort of the appearance of science, the appearance of a sort of scientific validity to what they’re doing.  It’s often just an appearance.

This kind of honest discussion is a breath of fresh air.  For years now, Vridar has been the lonely voice in the wilderness, warning that the historical Jesus scholars were using their criteria to do too much. Besides trying to use criteria that were designed to assign relative probabilities to determine absolute historicity, we’ve noted here countless times, again and again, that HJ scholars appear to apply the criteria selectively, after the fact in order to prove what they wish to be true.

Kudos to Dr. Goodacre. Maybe the next time we have another friendly tussle with Dr. McGrath, Mark will come to our defense — you know, on the side of right — instead of coming to the aid of a beleaguered fellow member of the guild who has once again gotten in over his head.

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2012/01/28

2 Peters, 1 Jude and 2 Revelations: the first New Testament (Couchoud)

Apocalypse of Peter

Continuing the series archived at Couchoud: The Creation of Christ – – – (Couchoud argues that our “editor” – Clement? – compiled 28 books, one more than our current 27 that make up our New Testament and this post concludes the section where Couchoud discusses the origin of our New Testament books.)

The perfect balance of the New Testament still stood in need of a counterweight. Just as the tale of Peter counter-balanced that of Paul in Acts, so the letters of Paul required as counterpoise letters from the Twelve.  There were already in existence a letter by James and three by John.  To make up seven, our editor produced two letters by Peter and one by Jude, John’s brother. (p. 305)

I don’t know if Couchoud here means to suggest “the editor” wrote these epistles himself. I find it difficult to accept the two letters attributed to Peter are by the same hand given what I have come to understand of their strikingly different styles, but let’s leave that question aside for now and cover what Couchoud’s views were as published in English 1939.

1 Peter

This epistle is said to have been a warrant for the Gospel of Mark. (Maybe, but some have suggested the name of Mark for the gospel was taken from this epistle. If it were a warrant for Mark one might be led to call to mind the unusual character of that Gospel. Its reputation had been tinged with “heretical” associations.) In the epistle Peter calls Mark “my son” and is supposed to be in his company in Rome, biblically called “Babylon”. The inference this leads to is that Mark wrote of the life and death of Jesus as learned from the eyewitness Peter. This coheres with Justin’s own naming of the Gospel “Recollections of Peter” in his Dialogue, section 106.

The letter is “a homily addressed to baptized heathen of Asia Minor at the time of a persecution.” Its teachings can be seen to be of the same category as those addressed in the earlier discussions by Couchoud – typical of Clement and anti-Marcionite . . . (more…)

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…)

2012/01/21

Paul’s Letter to the Romans – the creation of the canonical edition according to Couchoud

English: page with text of Epistle to the Roma...

Page with text of Epistle to the Romans 1:1-7: Image via Wikipedia

I continue here the series covering Paul Louis Couchoud’s argument for the creation of the canonical New Testament literature from the 1939 English translation of his The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity. The series is archived here — scroll to the bottom for the first posts where the overall purpose for which the literature is covered, along with when and why and why Couchoud suspects Clement of Rome as the editor (and author) responsible.

The guiding principle for the structure was Marcion’s “canon” that began with a Gospel and included ten letters of Paul.

Background: In brief, Marcion was a prominent leader of a form of Christianity that (at least until recently) has been generally believed to have rejected totally the Old Testament and taught that Jesus came down from heaven to preach about an Alien (unknown) God who was all love and higher than the Jewish God of the law and judgment. Marcion claimed Paul as his sole apostolic authority in opposition to the other apostles who never understood Christ’s message. Couchoud argues that a Roman church elder (he suspects Clement) attempted to unite the diverse Christianities represented by competing Gospels (such as Marcion’s Gospel, Matthew, John, Mark) bringing them all together through the themes expressed in Luke and Acts (his own creations, though Luke was largely a re-write of Marcion’s Gospel) except for the intolerable Marcionite views that had to be countered.

Couchoud has covered the creations and compilation of the Gospels and Acts, and now comes to the orthodox versions of the Pauline letters. Marcion had selected Galatians as the most appropriate for the introduction of Paul’s thought; “Clement”(?) preferred Romans as the one most potentially adaptable as a frame of reference for the “correct” reading of Paul’s corpus. (Marcion had placed it fourth.) This would leave nothing more to do than revise a few details here and there in the other letters.

This editor enlarged Romans to twice its original size. (Couchoud mainly follows Harnack’s reconstruction of Marcion’s thought, Gospel and epistles. I have begun posting elsewhere Sebastian Moll’s revision of Harnack’s basic premis in his 2010 work and must post more on that in the future. I keep with Couchoud’s thoughts here.) Massive additions were: (more…)

2011/10/15

The Order of the New Testament Canon

Filed under: Kennedy: NT Interp Rhet Critic,New Testament — Neil Godfrey @ 8:29 pm
Tags: ,

George A. Kennedy makes some interesting observations about the order of the New Testament books that probably many Christians have at some time thought about. I suppose when a professor of classics publishes the same it gives us an assurance that our senses have not failed us.

The canon of the New Testament was established by Councils of the Church in late antiquity. Whether consciously determined or not, the order assigned to the books is interesting, for it is consistent with conventions of rhetoric as taught in the schools.

  1. First come the Gospels, which proclaim the message;
  2. then the narrative of Acts, which describes its reception;
  3. then the epistles, which may be viewed as arguing out interpretation of the message;
  4. and finally the Apocalypse, as a dramatic epilogue.

(p. 97, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, my formatting and numbering.)

It’s not quite true, of course. Acts can hardly be said to describe the reception of the message we read about in the Gospels, unless the message of the Gospels is confined to their final verses. And the epistles appear to be even less interested in arguing out the interpretation of anything we read in the Gospels. But the order of the books as bound in  canonical black with gold edging does rhetorically convey the impression that it is quite true.

And then there is the order of the Gospels.

The order of the four Gospels probably reflects what the Church thought was the chronological order of their composition and is consistent with Eusebius’ reports on the subject. But it is also rhetorically effective in that

  1. Matthew, with his introductory genealogy, account of Jesus’ birth, and extended speeches, gives a comprehensive initial picture of Christianity and links it to the Old Testament;
  2. Mark, with his emphasis on what Jesus did, approximates a narration;
  3. Luke works out details and smoothes over problems to create a plausible whole;
  4. and John supplies a moving epilogue.

(p. 97 ditto)

 

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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…)

2010/12/23

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

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus. Pa...

See the introduction linked in this post for the relevance of this image. Image via Wikipedia

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

The first essential step in any historical inquiry

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

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

 

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

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

Historicity is an assumption (more…)

2010/09/29

Demons 101 – Early Christianity’s Middle Platonic Background

In my previous post I cited a “Distinguished Scholar”‘s textbook summary of Middle Platonic ideas that formed part of the background to early Christianity. I continue this post with a discussion of the philosopher who introduced ‘demonology’ into Platonic philosophical views during the century preceding that of Paul and the earliest Christians.

In an earlier post I quoted translated passages from two Middle Platonist authors given prominence by Everett Ferguson, Philo and Plutarch, that depicted their particular views of cosmology and the place of demons in the universe. That post upset some readers who appeared to take exception to the posting of evidence from primary sources that lent support to the discussion of Earl Doherty in his publications arguing that the Jesus originated as a mythical construct. A significant part of Doherty’s discussion focuses on the way certain Middle Platonic views informed the intellectual background to the New Testament epistles.

Since that post I’ve had more time to look a little more closely at one of Earl Doherty’s sources, The Middle Platonists, by John M. Dillon. (more…)

2010/08/30

Brodie (almost) versus McGrath on historical methodology in NT studies

Filed under: Historiography,New Testament — Neil Godfrey @ 2:55 pm
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Missed it by that much

Missed it by that much

Thomas L. Brodie has a chapter (“Towards Tracing the Gospels’ Literary Indebtedness to the Epistles” in Mimesis and Intertextuality) discussing the possibility of the Gospel authors using the NT epistles among their sources, but what I found of most interest was his discussion on methodology and criteria. The difference between Brodie’s discussion of historical methodology and that espoused by James McGrath comes close to being starkly different as day is from night. But it is not clear that Brodie is fully aware of what I think are the implications of what he writes. (more…)

2010/08/28

Christianity won over paganism by epitomizing pagan ideals

Filed under: New Testament,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:16 pm
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http://www.umich.edu/~homeros/Representations%...
Image via Wikipedia

This continues my previous post, which was slightly misleadingly titled Why Christianity Spread So Rapidly . . .. It is for most part a distillation of Gregory J. Riley’s chapter, “Mimesis of Classical Ideals in the Second Christian Century”, found in Mimesis and Intertextuality edited by Dennis MacDonald. A related post is my discussion of Paul’s Christ crucified message and its relationship to Stoic philosophy, Why Paul did not need “the historical Jesus”. (Riley himself, however, is certainly not a Jesus-mythicist as far as I am aware.)

Riley is attempting to redress what he sees as an imbalance in the scholarship of early Christianity by pointing out that key Christian themes and messages originated in the Greco-Roman world, and were tacked on to Jewish heroes. Christianity’s attraction to many in the Roman empire lay in the way it epitomized the best and noblest of Classical ideals as it narrated these through very “paganized” Jewish characters.

Anyone familiar with the New Testament who reads the classical literature of Greece and Rome cannot help but notice the many coincidences of thought and expressions. This was certainly my own experience. Questions inevitably begin to arise as one sees this so often the more one reads. It is refreshing and enlightening to see Riley address this question head on.

This part 2 post looks at “what made the Christian Gospel something familiar and alluring, even captivating, for the masses of people of the Roman world.” (p.99) I flesh out some of Riley’s notes with quotations from the classical sources themselves. (more…)

2010/07/04

The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)

Niels Peter Lemche has a chapter in Lester Grabbe’s Did Moses Speak Attic titled, “The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?” Here are a few highlights from it. The first point here should stand out as equally relevant for New Testament studies.

NT studies digression

Historical Jesus/Christian origin scholars should have this framed and displayed on their work desks — or used as their computer wallpaper:

It is an established fact that a literary product must be considered a reflection of its age of origin, as nobody can escape being a child of his or her own time. This is absolutely commonplace but, on the other hand not to be forgotten by, say, narrative analysts who may claim that it is possible to understand an argument by a person in the past without knowing in advance the specific values attached to his age to certain beliefs and concepts. The same applies to the study of the biblical literature, although written by anonymous authors. It is surely extremely naive to believe that the meaning of biblical books can be properly exposed without knowledge of their date of composition, about the ideas current in that age or the beliefs common to their audience; and it is of no consequence whether the subject is a narrative as a whole or parts of it or just single concepts and phrases. (p. 295)

This statement here — surely a simple truism — goes to the heart of many historicists’ errors. Acknowledgement of Lemche’s point here is what gives Earl Doherty’s interpretations of Paul’s writings the lay down misère advantage over orthodox mainstream interpretations. I would go further than Doherty, however, and suggest the significance of the common themes in both Paul’s and second century writings. But the most significant error that comes from New Testament scholars overlooking this basic fact is their interpretation of the Gospels themselves.

What Lemche’s paragraph builds on is an equally pertinent observation on historical method that is generally overlooked by mainstream New Testament scholars. Lemche complained that among OT scholars

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage point should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294)

But though it is in the second century that we are best informed about the appearance of both the Pauline epistles and Gospels, to follow Lemche’s truism here and apply what would be considered standard scientific procedure by “almost everybody else” is generally dismissed as an extremist or fringe position!

So much for the digression. Now for some highlights of Lemche’s discussion arguing for a very late date for the Old Testament.

More Greek philosophical inspiration for Genesis

I recently posted on the possibility that Genesis myths were inspired by Plato‘s philosophical myths.

Lemche discusses another Greek philosophical concept found in Genesis 1. (more…)

2010/06/14

How to date the gospels

Filed under: Robinson: Redating NT — Neil Godfrey @ 4:00 am
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Four Evangelists, miniatures from the Gelati (...

Image via Wikipedia

One who identifies himself as an Irish Anglican here has asked me if I would like to address the arguments of John A. T. Robinson in Redating the New Testament. While I have had such an exercise on my list of “to-do” items for some time, it is unlikely that I will get around to doing anything in depth for quite some time. I would have thought, from the fact that Robinson’s arguments for early dates seem to have made little significant impact on mainstream scholarship, we can see the arguments have not been overwhelmingly persuasive — apart from the more apologetically inclined who have a theological interest in seeing the gospels dated as early as possible to the events they narrate. (But not being a part of academia I might be misinformed on this point.)

As if the narrative is itself some external historical reality and not, indeed, just a lot of creative words making up the theological parable or story. Sound historical method, at least as found practiced outside the sheltered ranks of historical Jesus studies, and as well recognized by the likes of Albert Schweitzer himself, requires that there be some indisputable reference point or control that is external to the narrative itself before one can rightfully assume any narrative has some historical basis. But Schweitzer lost that battle and it appears that today many mainstream believers in the historical Jesus can only respond with insult in place of reasoned argument when challenged with this basic premise. That’s understandable. There is no reasoned rebuttal available to them.

Well, let’s see. I’m digressing. Back to dating the gospels.

There is one simple reason John A. T. Robinson’s dating arguments fail. There are a number of more detailed reasons. But one overall methodological reason undermines his entire effort. (more…)

2010/03/17

“Partisanship” in New Testament scholarship

Utrecht 11 Feb 09 (25)

Image by jimforest via Flickr

In 2006 James Crossley‘s Why Christianity Happened was published. (James G. Crossley belongs to the University of Sheffield, the same whose Biblical Studies program was the subject of international controversy late last year, and with which a recent commenter on this blog was heatedly involved.) As “a sociohistorical account of Christian origins (26-50 CE)” (the book’s subtitle) I found it left much unanswered, but I did find some of his remarks in his introductory chapter on the history of New Testament historiography and its application of social sciences of interest. Here are a few excerpts:

Will always get largely Christian results

As it stands presently, NT scholarship will always get largely Christian results, be they the nineteenth-century liberal lives of Jesus, the Bultmannian dominated neo-Lutheranism, or the results of smaller subgroups, such as the social reformer/critic Cynic Jesus associated with the Jesus Seminar: all different but all recognizably Christian. (p. 23)

A dubious academic field

Crossley cites Maurice Casey as noting that, although major British universities do indeed genuinely hire on merit, “when some 90 percent of more of the applicants are Protestant Christians, a vase majority of Christian academics is the natural result. Moreover, the figure of Jesus is of central importance in colleges and universities which are overtly Protestant or Catholic, and which produce a mass of books and articles . . .  The overall result of such bias is to make the description of New Testament Studies as an academic field a dubious one.

Crossley remarks with regret that the September 2000 annual British New Testament Conference “opened with both a glass of wine and a Christian prayer. . .”

should an academic meeting that explicitly has no official party line really hold a collective prayer at its opening . . . ? . . . Would other contemporary conferences in the humanities outside theology and biblical studies even contemplate prayer? Would the participants of nontheological conferences even believe that other academic conferences do such things?

Turning back the Enlightenment

Crossley points to “a particularly significant example”, a “subgroup of biblical scholarship associated with social-scientific approaches”. Such groups “often require defenses against accusations of reductionism and secularism.” (p. 23)  He remarks on Philip Esler addressing fellow delegates at a 1994 conference with:

Then we too may reach Emmaus, having had the experience described in the words from the Scots version of Luke’s Gospel as read at the liturgy . . . . (p.24)

Despite the diverse views of the delegates at this St Andrews Conference on New Testament Interpretation and the Social Sciences,

crucially, all the differences were ultimately harmonized under the umbrella of Christian faith.

Stephen Barton of Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion has warned “that the epistemological roots of much social-scientific methodology lie in Enlightenment atheism and so,

awareness of this genealogy should also act as a safeguard against unwittingly allowing the agenda of interpretation to shift in a secularizing direction, away from evangelical imperatives native to the NT itself and central to the concerns of those who read the NT with a view to growing in the knowledge and love of God. (p. 16)

I had thought the Enlightenment was a good thing, and secularism in academia the way forward to further enlightenment. Even as a staunch Christian I used to thank both God and the Devil for allowing secularism to bring tolerance for all and the possibility of unfettered enquiry. (Well, maybe I am now thinking I wished I had thanked the Devil too.)

Resurrection and Virgin Birth

Crossley continues:

It is because of this scholarly context that some quite peculiar academic arguments can be made and most frequently in what would seem to be historically unlikely cases, such as the resurrection and virgin birth. It is only in the world of NT scholarship and theology that when Jesus’ resurrection is studied, the major historical debates focus around whether or not these supposed events are beyond historical enquiry or if the “spiritual meaning” is more important than the literal understanding. In this context, major proponents (e.g. Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder) of the bodily resurrection not happening are often regarded (rightly or wrongly (sic)) as mavericks.

We recently saw this illustrated almost verbatim by Associate Professor of Butler University James McGrath. (In my Did Jesus Exist on Youtube post I discuss how James made that statement — that “a historian” cannot study the resurrection so he must study “the crucifixion” and explain Christianity with reference to that.)

Historically naïve (twice over)

Crossley comments on a work titled An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus. The “interdisciplinary” should not be confused with contributors coming from fields as diverse as ancient history, history, sociology or anthropology. No, the term covers, rather, the comparatively inbred fields of Christian theology, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies.

Crossley remarks on the historical naivety of one of the contributors of this volume (Gerald O’Collins) when he asks:

What are we to make of the moral probity of Mark in creating such a fictional narrative (and one that touches on an utterly central theme in the original Christian proclamation) and of the gullibility of the early Christians (including Matthew and Luke) in believing and repeating his fiction as if it were basically factual narrative?

Crossley comments on O’Collins’ question:

This is far too rooted in modern concepts of truth and ignores the well-known fact that people in the ancient world created fictional stories of past events, including ones that are utterly central for their beliefs: for example, Joseph and Aseneth on table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles or b. B. Mesi’a 59b on rejecting the legal authority of the wonder-working and divine-voice-supported R.  Eliezar. These are serious issues for the Jews involved, but no historian thinks the stories really happened, no historian should criticize ancient authors of immorality simply on the general point of inventing historical scenarios. (p.25)

So near and yet so far. James Crossley himself fails to see how cocooned his own thinking is in the assumed historical grounding of the Gospel narratives. Gerald O’Collins is addressing a point that needs honest examination at far more than the ethical issue of supposed “ancient concepts of honesty”. But that’s for another post another time.

The N.T. Wright phenomenon

(more…)

2010/02/09

Historicist Misunderstanding : a reply to James McGrath and others

James McGrath has expressed his concerns about apparent misunderstandings of the historical process on the part of those who argue that Jesus was probably not an historical figure in his blog post: Mythicist Misunderstanding

I wish to address his post in some detail, because he brings together the sorts of objections one regularly sees raised by “historicists”. Obviously my comments are mine alone, my perspective on things, or my interpretation and application of the words of others.

James writes:

I’ve long been perplexed by the frequent complaint from mythicists (i.e. those who claim that Jesus was a purely invented figure, not even based on a real historical human individual) that those working on the historical Jesus simply assume as a presupposition that Jesus existed, rather than addressing the question directly. I think such individuals are looking for a demonstration by historians, in the introductory part of their book about Jesus, “proving” he existed, before going on to discuss anything he may have said or done. That this is what is meant seems clear because one may cite a saying or incident that is generally considered authentic, only to be met with the retort, “But how do you know he even existed?” Such objections reflect a serious misunderstanding of the historical enterprise. I think it is safe to say that there is no historical figure from the past that we know existed apart from evidence for actual things he or she said or did. We know George Washington existed because he wrote documents, because he served as President of the United States, because he slept here or there. There is no such thing as proof of a historical person’s existence in the abstract or at a theoretical level. There is simply evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others.

Here is reference to “evidence of activity, of speech, of things said or done, of interaction with others”, but without any indication what this evidence actually is. Is he referring to letters? diaries? monumental inscriptions? newspapers? pamphlets? By referring vaguely to “evidence of activity” this comment bypasses all serious conversations about historical methodology. The vagueness of the term covers a multitude of sins.

And so when historians engage in the tedious but ultimately rewarding process of sifting through the relatively early texts that mention Jesus, and painstakingly assess the arguments for the authenticity of a saying or incident, they are not “treating the existence of Jesus as a presupposition.” They are providing the only sorts of evidence we can hope to have from a figure who wrote no books or letters, ruled no nations, and did none of the other things that could leave us more tangible forms evidence. And so I will state once again what is obvious to historians and New Testament scholars but apparently unclear to some who are not entirely familiar with how historical investigation works. Historians are confident Jesus existed, first and foremost, because we have sayings attributed to him and stories about him that are more likely authentic than inauthentic. We have enough such material to place the matter beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of most experts in the field.

Here the sins take root. What is it that gives historians confidence that Jesus existed? We are told that this confidence rests on early texts that attribute sayings to and narrate stories about him. Moreover, historians are discerning enough to sift out those sayings and stories that are “more likely authentic than inauthentic”, and this process is said to add weight to the evidence for the existence of Jesus.

But the idea that a document can give us some measure of confidence in the historicity of its narrative just because it is “early” and purports to narrate sayings and deeds of a hero is a baseless assumption. A narrative cannot logically testify to the “historical factualness” of its own tale.

Simply removing the miracles will not work. As others have shown, and as I have also repeated here, that sort of “rationalization” usually only results in destroying stories and their meanings, not in finding some “historical core”.

Sifting through layers of speech to identify what words conform to some criteria such as that of “dissimilarity” can only tell us what words in the narrative are “dissimilar” from some other words. This process can never logically unearth a true artefact of bedrock history. Stripping away everything to reach a “reasonable plausibility” cannot, by itself, bring us any closer to qualitative probability of a “true event”.

Self-testimony of a narrative, alone, can never by definition establish historicity of its own tale. Not even if the same basic tale is told in various ways in several documents. We need first to establish some evidential link or testimony to the narrative from a source that can claim to be an external witness to that tale.

To think that by reaching a “more plausible” narrative in historical terms we somehow magically arrive at a “more probable” historical tale is to think like a child who wishes hard enough for a story be true till she can find enough confidence to finally really believe it. Except that with maturity the child learns to replace “really believe” with “believe it was probably” so.

Here is the heart of an historicist misunderstanding. (But not all historians of the Bible share this misunderstanding. From my lay perspective I have the impression that Old Testament studies have become increasingly aware of this statement’s critical logical and methodological flaws since the advent of the so-called “minimalist” perspectives emanating from the likes of Davies, Lemche and Thompson.) (more…)

2010/01/23

Scholars will explode the myth of The New Testament

Filed under: New Testament,Q,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:18 am
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University of Copenhagen
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From the University of Copenhagen News

Scholars will explode the myth of The New Testament

Bible scholars across the world have for many years believed that two of the Gospels of the New Testament – The Gospel of St. Matthew and St. Luke respectively were partly based on the content of a supposedly lost scripture referred to as “Q”. In a new research project, researchers from the Faculty of Theology will attempt to establish that this lost scripture never existed.

The Gospels as re-written Bible

The Research Project at the University of Copenhagen, which has just been granted 4.7 million kroner by the Velux Foundation, has been titled “The Gospels as re-written Bible”. During the next tree years a group of scholars will map the development of the four gospels in order to establish that the Gospel of Luke is not, as believed so far, a contemporary of the Gospel of Matthew, and that the shared content of the two is not to be explained by the existence of a lost scripture, but by the fact that the author of St. Luke’s Gospel used St. Matthew’s Gospel as well as that of St. Mark as basis for his own scripture.

Contact for this story is Professor Morgans Muller, Faculty of Theology.

See the full article here.


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2009/06/21

The diverse Jewish religious environment of Paul outmatches the imagination of Borg and Crossan

Following on from this previous post . . . . .

Borg and Crossan (B and C) (The First Paul) attempt to argue that despite Paul’s clear assertions that he sought to preach only “Christ crucified” and that “Jesus is Lord”, that this could not possibly have been true:

[W]e think the notion that Paul’s message was primarily or exclusively about the death of Jesus and not his life is highly unlikely. Indeed, we find it impossible to imagine. As an illustration, imagine a conversation between Paul and someone he sought to convert. Imagine, for example, Paul’s conversation with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). (p. 126)

Borg and Crossan then portray Lydia as a very capable and intelligent woman (she was a seller of a luxury item) who was a gentile “God seeker”.

Now imagine Paul telling Lydia about Jesus. Imagine, also, that he focuses on “Christ crucified” (and also, of course, on “Jesus Christ is Lord”). One cannot imagine the conversation going very far before Lydia asks, “Well, this Jesus you talk about who was crucified and then raised from the dead, what was he like?” Paul says, “Never mind what he was like — what really matters is that he was the Son of God who was crucified and died for your sins.” Such an answer would have had no meaning for her. It would have been a conversation stopper.

For Paul to have told her about Jesus’s death would have had no meaning unless he also told her about what Jesus was like, about the kind of person he was. What was this person like who got crucified? What did he stand for that led to his execution by the powers that ruled his world and then his resurrection by God? Who was the Jesus who is now Lord? Proclaiming “Christ crucified” could not (and still cannot) exclude talking about what Jesus was like, what he taught, and what he stood for.” (pp.126-127)

It simply does not occur to many bible scholars (Borg and Crossan are not alone) who are, to a large extent, essentially supported  by various Christian communities, to re-examine their historicist assumptions that force them into the position of having to make up imaginary scenarios like the one above to support their arguments. There is simply no evidence that Paul was ever obliged to, or ever did, discuss the pre-crucifixion life and character of an historical Jesus. The evidence that we do have actually speaks against any idea that he did do this. But the assumptions from which Borg and Crossan are working force them to imagine that Paul must necessarily have preached something akin to one of our four narrative gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit now that I once thanked Crossan for helping me appreciate the importance of “historical methodology”. Well, his Historical Jesus did take me a long way forward from where I had been until that time. But boy have I learned so much more since. Mostly what I’ve learned since is not that hard, really. Simply study the historians and classicists of nonbiblical ancient history and literature topics and apply their methods consistently to the biblical topics too. No favourites or disciplines with special rules to make them somehow exceptional cases. (Okay, I had several years studying ancient history as an undergraduate so I guess it’s a bit easier for me than some others. But I’m trying to share on this blog.)

What else could Paul possibly have preached?

Just what he said he preached. Christ crucified, for starters. Why is this a problem for most? Because, I suspect, we start out with assumptions of Jesus’ historicity. The gospel crucifixion scene consists of only the last few chapters of each of the gospels. It is not enough of a narrative on its own. It needs all the earlier bits like the healings, the miracles, the teachings, the crowds and conflicts, to mean anything much. But all of these are generally acknowledged as having been written long after Paul.

All this starts to make more sense when we understand that first century c.e. Judaism was not the rigidly “monotheistic” cult that we associate with later rabbinism and today’s Jews. Whether we follow Margaret Barker and her The Great Angel : a Study of Israel’s Second God (which proposes that Judaism before the fall of the Temple in 70 c.e. contained factions that effectively still retained memories of El, Yawheh, Asherah as distinct yet all divine beings) or James F. McGrath and his The Only True God : Early Christian

Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (which argues that what passed for “monotheism” in the first century was a broader definition than we allow today), one soon learns that Judaism before the fall of the Temple was not the same as what it became in the second century.

Just a few drops to indicate the incredible diversity of Second Temple religious beliefs among Jews, which later rabbinic Judaism attempted to deny:

  1. For some Jews, individuals such as Jacob existed in heaven before they appeared on earth, as we learn from The Prayer of Joseph.
  2. And some wrote of subordinate heavenly beings with names like Yaoel, a contraction of Yahweh and El, as in The Apocalypse of Abraham, a text with remarkable echoes of the Gospel of John.
  3. Some factions also dedicated themselves to the study of “hidden wisdom” and roles of angels, as we learn from apocalyptic texts like the Book of Enoch.
  4. Even the New Testament cannot avoid reference to these narratives of great powers in heaven, including their Enochian source, as we see in Jude.
  5. For others, such practices had to be denounced and expunged, as we see from the survival of the texts that have since become the Jewish Bible and Christianity‘s Old Testament.
  6. I have also discussed in depth Levenson’s exploration of how the Isaac story among some Jews apparently became transformed into a death and resurrection narrative by the Second Temple period.Apocalyptic literarature of Second Temple Judaism
  7. And first century Jewish philosopher Philo also speaks of the Logos as a second god.
  8. Recall also the varied myths of Jacob’s Ladder,
  9. and speculations that changed the original Aramaic meaning of Son of Man in Daniel.
  10. and the “two powers in heaven” “heresy” with Metatron being found in the place of God in heaven according to visionary narratives.
  11. and those strange references in the New Testament and other unorthodox Jewish literature to Melchizedek
  12. and how seriously should we read take the description of a woman in Revelation being clothed with the sun — surely an obvious allusion to her divinity — who bore a child who was not crucified on earth but whisked immediately to heaven?
  13. and the survival of the Ugaritic divinities in various forms in the apocalyptic literature, and Margaret Barker’s discussions of the distinctions between El and Yahweh even in the OT.
  14. and the cosmic-spiritual meanings attributed to astronomical data, including within Mithraism of the same era.
  15. and the Qumran community with texts discussing unorthodox messiahs
  16. and Samaritan traditions, some involving John the Baptist,
  17. and some scholars suggesting a link between Simon the Sorcerer in Acts and Paul, and Damscus traditions
  18. and what do the above suggest about Paul’s reference to “the god of this world” who is responsible for the blindness of mankind and “the rulers of this age” or “the princes of this world“. In what sort of theological framework was he immersed?
  19. and what did he discuss among converts about the meaning of his vision of Jesus, and the times he felt himself taken up to the different levels of heavens, and the meanings of the “marks of Jesus” in his hands, as he also mentions in his letters, and the power of angels from heaven to preach, and what he meant by Christ being revealed “in him”, and being “set forth crucified” before the very eyes of the Galatians?
  20. To answer, these contents of Paul’s letters ought not to be overlooked as embarrassing oddities. We need to seriously consider how Christianity could have been so overwhelmingly dominated by Marcionites and Valentinians in the early second century, and that it was only as that century wore on that current orthodoxy began to gain the upper hand. Recall how the orthodox (Tertullian?) could even say that Paul was “the apostle of the heretics”.

Paul’s letters need to be read against this three dimensional context of Jewish religious speculation and writings, not just through the two dimensional OT and modern Christianity perspective.

Once we leave behind the monochrome Judaism of our OT and begin to enter the far richer and more complex world that was first century c.e. Judaism then Paul’s letters begin to need less creative imagination from Borg and Crossan to explain. Lydia was a capable and articulate woman who may well have been engaged by a theological-cum-philosophical discussion about powers and beings of heaven and what they offered anew for people like her on earth. Or maybe there was much allegorizing, as we find in the first gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark, seen by many as reflecting the theology of Paul, allegorizes the crucifixion to indicate the overthrow of the demonic powers of this earth and the opening of the gateway (cross/ecliptic . . .) between heaven and earth, an event privatized for Jesus at his baptism, but made available to believers with the tearing of the veil (representing heaven with its pattern of stars) that had hitherto separated the place of God from the place of humankind. Paul’s cross fits in well with theologies of the overthrow of demonic or “lesser god” powers, and declaring just and saved all who believe in their “oneness with God” through the cross, symbol of giving up all their earthly desires, and symbol of the gateway between heaven and earth.

I suspect Paul taught the sorts of things he wrote about. He discussed why and how circumcision was no longer valid because of the complex meaning — hitherto a mystery, as he says — of the crucifixion of Jesus. He taught about how a new way of relating to God could be based on faith in a crucified Messiah, much as Stoics could teach of a new way of living and relating to the cosmos through the denial of the flesh (see Engberg-Pedersen — will do some posts on his work some time). In both, new communities arose out of such teachings. All of this is lost to modern readers who are fixated on an historical interpretation of a narrative that in its original form was clearly allegorical — see my notes on Gospel of Mark on my vridar.info site.

By no means am I claiming that the above points as presented like this are proof or even linking evidence that Paul did teach something more esoteric than a biographical narrative. I can do no more in this post than point out the religious environment and suggest alternatives. There is certainly no evidence for B’s and C’s imaginative scenario — quite the contrary.

Lydia

A capable, intelligent, “God-seeker” like Lydia was also immersed in this world of theological diversity, and no doubt would have been wrapped in any such discussion. The original narrator of the tale, the author of Acts and Luke, however, was a proto-orthodox Christian opposed to such speculations. For him, the literal interpretation of the narrative of Jesus was destined to replace the heretical speculations the original devotees of Paul clung to.

The crucifixion has no meaning without resurrection?

This is certainly true according to B and C. But if that was really true for Paul then one must remain at least somewhat perplexed by his frequent separate treatment of them – even sometimes discussing the meaning of the crucifixion without any reference to resurrection at all. When Paul does discuss resurrection, it is to affirm life after death and the ongoing Lordship of Jesus. These are not, contra B and C, presented as “answers” to the crucifixion. The death of Jesus has its own salvific value for Paul quite apart from any discussion of a resurrection. But this is another topic if I need to pull out the citations etc to make the point. Later. Enough blogging for one weekend.

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