Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (2)

Filed under: Henaut: Oral Tradition and Gospels,Oral Tradition — Neil Godfrey @ 10:54 am
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henautThis post continues on directly from Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1).

Barry W. Henaut is arguing that scholars have taken for granted the assumption that the Gospels drew upon oral traditions about Jesus, or sources like Q that drew upon oral traditions, for their narratives. This is not to say that Henaut argued against the historical Jesus. Not at all. I assume Henaut does not doubt the historicity of Jesus or that there were oral traditions circulating about him after his death. What he is arguing is something quite independent of (though not irrelevant to) the question of Jesus’ historicity.

He is arguing that the evidence that the Gospel narratives were derived creatively from other literary sources is stronger than the evidence that they were based on oral traditions that could be traced back to Jesus.

This post continues Henaut’s discussion of Bultmann’s view of oral tradition.

Double Attestation and Orality (continued)

Here is how Bultmann reconstructs the “Confession of Faith in Jesus” passage. Keep in mind that the saying in Mark is believed to be derived from a source that is quite independent of the one in Luke which is said to be derived from Q. What scholars/Bultmann have believed we are reading here is a double independent witness (Mark and Q) to the existence of an oral tradition about a saying of Jesus.

Because Jesus speaks of “the Son of Man” in the third person it appears that he does not consider himself to be that Son of Man. But we know early Christians did believe he was the Son of Man. Therefore, it is argued, this saying derives from Jesus.

Mark 8:38
Q 12:8-9
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.

Later the Gospel of Matthew will change the saying so that Jesus says, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess” so that the words of Jesus are brought into line with Christian belief that Jesus was that Son of Man.

Henaut is uncomfortable with this argument:

Bultmann has again overstated his case in assigning this logion to Jesus. The phrases [I] and [the Son of Man] need not imply a distinction of person — they are more likely in synonymous parallelism with a change of wording. (p. 36)

We see similar arguments from a number of other scholars who interpret the “Son of Man” in this context not as a Christological title derived from the Book of Daniel, but an originally Aramaic idiomatic circumlocution for “a human/person/man”. The similarity lies in seeing understanding “I” and “son of man” as being an instance of synonymous parallelism. (I think this is adding further complexity to the argument by introducing layers of other constructs, including imagined historical scenarios and lines of communication through many decades before it was put in writing, to make the saying work. Far simpler, in my mind, to imagine the author drawing upon the literary antecedent of Daniel.)

We can even witness a contemporary illustration of how such parallelism works by looking at the sayings of a follower of Jesus that were left on this blog. Like Jesus, dbg speaks modestly of himself, David Gowler, in the third person. :-)  (more…)


Taking Oral Tradition For Granted: Bultmann (1)

henautThat the stories and sayings of Jesus were circulating by word of mouth before the Gospels were written is generally a “fact” taken for granted today among New Testament scholars. That the first Gospel was “made up” the way other fanciful tales of miracle-working heroes were fabricated seems to be a contraband thought in mainstream New Testament studies. I recently posted an outline of Barry Henaut’s introduction to his argument that questions this assumption. Here I continue with his critique of the assumption that there must have been an oral tradition of an historical Jesus’ sayings and actions preceding the Gospels. (Caveat: By no means am I suggesting Henaut did not believe in the historical Jesus. I assume he did.)

Henaut begins with Rudolf Bultmann‘s view of oral tradition. Bultmann was one of the major influential figures in early twentieth century New Testament studies.

The Connecting Geographic Links

Bultmann believed that stories about originally consisted of disparate and brief units of anecdotes that were relayed orally.

I have never been quite sure why this proposition seems to have been so widely accepted. Surely eye-witnesses to any one event involving Jesus that was renowned enough to have found its way into a miracle story would have led to somewhat lengthy accounts of the persons and circumstances involved. Not tales so brief that their essence could be captured in a few verses.

Besides, if Jesus had followers, surely we might expect that there would have been lengthier reports of his life involving several events and moments of sayings and that the first gospel authors would have had more than tiny three-verse units to piece together.

But maybe that’s just me. Let’s continue.

The first evangelist (author of the first Gospel) was responsible for stitching these units together into a single narrative. He did so by means of introducing connecting lines referring to specific times and places. That is, the original oral story units had lost connection with their chronological place in relation to other events, and even to specific geographical locations. So the gospel-author constructed the gospel narrative out of these little blocks of stories and sayings by creatively setting them into chronological setting and sequence, and even locating them in certain places — towns, wildernesses, houses, etc.

So what does all of that mean?

It means that Bultmann believed that most of the time and place references in the gospels were “redactional” — that is, they were added by the evangelists writing the gospels. They were not part of the original oral narratives about Jesus.

Why did Bultmann believe this?

Henaut says that this belief was possible because he took two assumptions for granted:

  1. Before the gospels were written there was a period of oral tradition;
  2. During the oral phase the various traditions circulated as separate units.

But there were exceptions. For example, when Bultmann found a geographic reference in a Gospel in a location that seemed to make little literary sense and where it was not used to connect story units, he would relocate the verse to another place where it did make more sense. That is, he would argue that an apparent incongruity in the text as we have it could be explained as a distortion or corruption of an earlier oral tradition where the verse was in a different place where it did make perfect sense.

This may be getting confusing, so here’s the case study used by Henaut. Mark 3:9 (Jesus tells his disciples to prepare a boat for him) is said to be incongruous in its current location and really belongs just prior to Mark 4:1 (Jesus is in the boat teaching the crowds) —83 (more…)


Early Christ Myth Theorists on Paul’s and the Gospels’ Jesus: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6 continued.

When starting this post I had hoped it would complete my discussion of Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’. This was meant to address Price’s reasons for thinking that the gospel narratives of Jesus — or any stories of an earthly life of Jesus — first made their appearance well into the second century. I have sometimes argued the same, but Price does so from a quite different perspective (drawing on what we know of Marcion and early Marcionism) from anything I had considered.

Before getting into Price’s argument some background was necessary. Unfortunately or otherwise, that background turned into a substantial post of its own, so here it is now. Price’s arguments for a second century creation of the gospels will have to wait. This post continues Price’s comparative study of early mythicist views of the relationship between Paul’s letters and the narratives of Jesus found in the gospels. Regardless of the date of Paul’s letters, this has long been the foundation of the Christ Myth theory.

As I pointed out in the first post on this chapter, Price discusses the views of today’s pre-eminent mythicists, G. A. Wells and Earl Doherty, noting their preference for the orthodox view of the Pauline epistles. That is, that they are written by “the genuine” Paul and thus belong to the middle of the first century, well before the gospels were penned.

It is now necessary to look at the earlier arguments for sake of comparison, as Price does.


Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud

Paul-Louis Couchoud accepted the genuineness of Pauline letters “at least in their shorter, Marcionite editions”.

He argued that Marcion penned 2 Thessalonians and Ephesians (known originally as Laodiceans) , but also that he wrote the first gospel — after the Bar Kochba revolt (133 c.e.) — and lived to see other gospels expand upon his.

Price sees here a potential acceptance of the possibility that one could write “Pauline” letters that contained no hint of an historical Jesus even though one was aware of a narrative of such a Jesus. But Price also concedes that in this case there was little opportunity for biographical references to Jesus to appear in a letters that were written in direct response to, or as commentaries upon, earlier letters (1 Thessalonians and Colossians.) (more…)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Historical Knowledge of Jesus is Impossible: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ chapter 5

Emanuel Pfoh‘s chapter in ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ raises the questions that I think get to the very heart of what the “historicist-mythicist” divide over Christian origins is really all about. It’s a favourite of mine, and once again like another favourite that I’ll mention again in this post, comes from an anthropological perspective. The title of his chapter is “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem“.

His chapter concludes the first of the three divisions into which the book is divided:

1. These first five chapters — by Jim West, Roland Boer, Lester L. Grabbe, Niels Peter Lemche and Emmanuel Pfoh — tackle “some problems and issues of past scholarship regarding the historical Jesus”.

2. The next section of three chapters (Robert M. Price, Morgens Müller, Thomas S. Verenna) raises “fresh perspectives regarding the figure of Paul and his epistles as our ‘earliest testimony’ of the figure of Jesus”. (I finally have come to appreciate the reference to “the figure of” Jesus as opposed to (simply) “Jesus”: the “figure of Jesus” is an umbrella term that can cover imaginary, mythical, historical-conceptual, or literal-physical-DNA Jesuses.)

3. The final section of the book consists of four chapters (James G. Crossley, Thomas L. Thompson, Ingrid Hjelm, Joshua Sabith) on the “intertextual literary reading and the significance of the function of a rewritten Bible for literary composition”, and a fifth and final chapter by K. L. Noll as a theoretical discussion of “the history of Christian origins without a historical Jesus.”

Emanuel Pfoh

In this chapter Pfoh examines the current research into the historical Jesus in the context of the “historical milieu of previous scholarship”. He draws lessons from the past — how social, political, ideological and intellectual contexts of past studies have influenced the results produced by that scholarship — and makes some incisive observations about the real nature of current historical Jesus studies as a result.

“But he’s not a New Testament scholar”

Emanuel Pfoh begins by clarifying his “outsider” status to the field of New Testament studies. His special interest is in “historical anthropology of Syria-Palestine/the Levant during the Bronze and Iron Ages. That would seem to immediately disqualify him from any contribution to the discussion of Jesus according to Bart Ehrman, Maurice Casey and James McGrath. (These have each rejected statements by Thomas L. Thompson on those grounds.)

What his chapter is about

Pfoh explains that he offers

only general statements and thoughts . . . regarding epistemological and methodological issues for the history-writing of the Near Eastern world, in which the figure of Jesus together with the whole of biblical traditions should be understood.

My main aim is to reflect, from strictly historical knowledge and what is to be deemed myth or mythic creation by ancient writers. (my emphases and formatting throughout)

That is, his chapter can be seen as

reflections of the methodological problems of the search for a historical Jesus in New Testament studies that should be acknowledged, addressed and responded to by scholars, but also as a plea for a critical understanding of the nature of ancient literature and the intellectual worlds supporting such.

What I believe Pfoh’s discussion does — though this is not something he directly addresses — is undermine the validity of the application of “historical criteria” to uncover a “historical Jesus” beneath the Gospels. Quite apart from the logical validity of the criteria themselves (criteria of embarrassment, double dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, etc) Pfoh’s reflections argue that it is no more reasonable to think they can uncover a “historical core” beneath the Gospels than they might uncover an historical Achilles or Odysseus if applied to Homer.

Some will immediately fault such an approach as “sceptical” as if scepticism is a bad word in academia. Pfoh will later point out

All this is not a matter of scepticism, but of an awareness of the conditions of our knowledge and of an attempt to treat the extant and available data critically. (p. 85, my emphasis — ironic that a scholar appears to sense a need to defend against a potential charge of scepticism)


The Figure of Jesus and the Mythic Mind

The main reason for holding to the historicity of the figure of Jesus . . . resides not primarily in historical evidence but derives instead from a modern theological necessity.

Pfoh writes that “the presence of the mythic mind in the intellectual world of antiquity” is not always taken seriously by “biblical scholars”. (more…)


Anti-intellectualism(?) in Jesus studies

My last post looked at Bultmann’s insights into the synoptic portrayal of the baptism of Jesus. This post looks at some disturbing and depressing reasons why at least two modern scholars appear to have rejected Bultmann’s findings. Disturbing and depressing because their reasons have nothing to do with the detail of Bultmann’s arguments. Bultmann is rejected because he came to the “wrong conclusion” and so ideological or sociological reasons are brought in to explain his “wrong conclusion”. Bultmann’s “wrong conclusion” was that too much of the Gospel narrative about Jesus was explained as Hellenistic (Greek) in origin and failed to make Jesus “Jewish enough”; in fact he concluded the Gospels did not allow us to learn much about the “real Jesus” at all.

I don’t know the field well enough to generalize but two scholars (among several) do stand out from my readings for having made particularly — I don’t know if the word “anti-intellectual” is too strong — anti-intellectual(?) rejections of Bultmann’s arguments. I can understand various objections to form criticism myself, but these scholars appear to have dumped the whole bath into the mud-pit.

James Crossley of the University of Sheffield faults Bultmann for failing to open up the application of social sciences to biblical studies and thereby explore the social setting of Christian origins — specifically a Jewish social setting for Jesus.

Bultmann emphasized an existential hermeneutic with theological truth supposedly found in the seemingly transcendent Gospel of John. (p. 4 of Why Christianity Happened)

I address a possible sinister significance of that use of “existential” later.

Crossley avoids blaming Bultmann’s for any personal anti-semitism but he that does not stop him from associating his studies with anti-semitism: (more…)


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

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


Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

But even more intriguing is an attached footnote that reads:

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

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

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


Casey versus Bultmann; and why Jesus was not as hungry as his disciples

Maurice Casey in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching, is sharply critical of Form Criticism and Rudolph Bultmann. Casey repeatedly expresses disapproval of scholars’ attempting to understand the “historical Jesus” by burying their noses in exegetical studies of the texts (which form criticism requires) of the canonical Gospels instead of looking primarily at what he believes are the sources of those texts. So he faults Bultmann on these grounds and also for being “anti-Judaism”:

Bultmann concludes that ‘Jesus . . . opposes the view that the fulfilment of the law is the fulfilling of the will of God.’ That conclusion is clean contrary to the teaching of Jesus. It was however just what German Christians needed from the Christ of their faith, for it bluntly contradicts the centre of Judaism. It was moreover produced by means of detailed exegesis of selected texts. It also illustrates the centrality of anti-Judaism in the work of a distinguished member of the Confessing Church, the opposite wing of the German churches from the Deutsche Christen movement. Bultmann’s general cultural environment led him to write Judaism out of the teaching of Jesus, using spurious intellectual arguments which wrote most of Jesus of Nazareth out of history altogether. (p. 12)

One passage Casey uses to challenge and reject Bultmann’s exegesis is Mark 2:23-28 (more…)

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