When Was Acts Written? Joe Tyson and the Acts Seminar Attempt an Answer

I’ve been a fan of Joe Tyson’s work from the first time I read anything by him.  Since then, I continue to grow more impressed with everything he publishes.  This is a book I will have to pick, both because he had a part in its creation and because it is a product of the Acts Seminar as a whole.  Here is a snippet form the blurb:

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

via When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century. « Westar Institute Westar Institute.

Give it a read and then pick up a copy for yourself!

Spider-Man and the Gospel Genres

While checking out Bible and Interpretation’s ‘Featured News’ section as I normally do, I came across this interesting looking article on the so-called Spider-Man fallacy.  I am always interested in the question of comics and their adoption of biblical themes (at times) or their shared motifs with ancient literature (because it is fun), so I clicked on the link.  I was surprised to see that the article was written to analyze an argument from an atheist about the nature of the Gospel genre.  The atheist (who is not named and so will remain our anonymous antagonist, even though this is unfair–I much rather prefer to have a name with an argument) gives this argument:

Archaeologists 1,000 years from now unearth a collection of Spiderman comics. From the background art, they can tell it takes place in New York City. NYC is an actual place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spiderman existed.

Though one has to admit, this would make a fun comic adaptation.

So the whole case is presented as if the scenario given by the atheist is essentially the same story surrounding the Gospels: a mythical figure set into a historical backdrop like New York City, who has interactions with real historical figures (like the mayor of New York City vs. Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, or Herod the Great).

I don’t like this logic.  The whole argument is a case of special pleading.  This particular anonymous atheist detractor seems to lack some basic knowledge about textual criticism, particularly how long we’ve had copies of the manuscripts (at least 1600 years–not 1000 years).  The argument also forgets that the comic strip is illustrated and we should hope that in 1000 years from now, humans still have full-text books (one would hope that illustrations don’t become the dominant form of media and story telling!) and still have comic books (though I wonder what their Justice League of the Future will look like).  So the whole argument is a wash: it presumes too many factors and asks you to accept too many unknowns (e.g., it asks you to pretend as if scholars in 1000 years won’t be as dorky or nerdy as we are today–something I highly doubt).

But that doesn’t mean the author of the refutation–Robin Schumacher–makes a good case against it either.  In fact the author of this piece for the Christian Post makes some surprising blunders (seemingly out of bias).  The biggest one is in their use of genre criticism:

However, such thinking has been discredited due to the work of a number of scholars, most notably Richard Burridge and his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Burridge, dean of King’s College in London, is a classicist who originally set out to disprove the thesis that the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography, but during his research, the evidence he uncovered caused him to reverse his opinion.

Those who think the Gospels don’t match the category of ancient historical biography confuse our current models of biography with those of the ancient world.

via Jesus and the Spiderman Fallacy | The Confident Christian.

The problem is that Robin Schumacher has it backwards.  Those who think the Gospels are ancient historical biography are the ones confused.  And Burridge is not the only one, along with Schumacher, who has it backwards.  We’ll look at Burridge, but I also want to focus on two other scholars who have argued similar positions: Darrell Bock and Craig Keener.

Let’s consider the basic proposition that the Gospels fit the genre of Greco-Roman biography.  Bock writes:[1]

What specific type of literature is a gospel?  How would an ancient reader have classified it?  …recent work has shown that the gospels read much like ancient Greco-Roman biographies and that the issue of bias does not preclude a discussion of historicity. A…concern for truth is present in the Gospels.  When we encounter a gospel, we are reading a literary form that the ancient world recognized as biographical…. Ancient biography gives us the portrait of a key figure by examining key events of which he or she was a major part as well as giving us glimpses of the hero’s thinking.  They tend to present a fundamental chronological outline of key periods starting with the birth or the arrival on the public scene….  Such biographies often concentrate on the controversies surrounding the key figure, especially the events that lead to a dramatic death, if that is part of the history.   It is this kind of work that we read as we turn out attention to the Gospel accounts as they present to us, as history, the life of Jesus.

Bock’s position, as is the position of many scholars of the historical Jesus, is one that visualizes the Gospels as histories—though not very good ones—of the life of the figure of Jesus.  So, the argument goes, there is something in the Gospels about a historical figure; it may not be much, which is the view of many scholars particularly those involved in the so-called ‘third quest’ and the Jesus Seminar, but there is somethingKeener agrees:

“In recent decades, as scholars have examined the best ancient analogies for the Gospels, it has become increasingly clear that the Gospels were designed as biographies—though as ancient rather than modern ones.”

This line of thinking did not come about ex nihilo.  In 1977, Charles Talbert[2], while not the first to suggest it, was the earliest contemporary historian to argue persuasively for Greco-Roman biography as the genre of the Gospels; a work more recently published, though still over fifteen years old, was published by Richard A. Burridge addressing the same issue–and the one with which Schumacher is familiar.[3]  But in the time between Burridge’s first publication and the present, several other investigations have been made into the study of genre and the Gospels. Most notably is the analysis by Michael Vines, where he takes Burridge, and David Aune as well, to task.[4] His most relevant point, in this author’s opinion, is that the Gospels do not focus on biographical aspects but on theological ones.  Burridge’s case rests on whether or not the Gospels imitate, unconsciously or purposefully, the genre of Greco-Roman biography (though he admits that the option is there that they only do so coincidentally).  However, the Gospels do not imitate Greco-Roman biography as Burridge, Aune, and Talbert believe and this is easily demonstrated.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

It helps the Classicist case that we also have contemporary attestation to Philostratus…

…and also to Apollonius.

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.

When one looks critically at the Gospels, one can easily see what I mean.  The Gospel authors were not writing independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  And as I mentioned, they don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark; a fact to which Keener admits, but he glosses over the fact that they don’t ever cite each other.  Keener greatly overstates his position when he writes that:

“…Matthew and Luke (whom we can best test) use their sources very carefully by ancient standards.… This does not mean that these writers concerned themselves about telling every detail in exactly the way that they received it—most ancient audiences expected writers to exercise more freedom than that—but that, by the standards we apply to their contemporaries, the Gospels are remarkably useful sources.”

If by using their sources “very carefully,” Keener means to admit that the authors changed, adjusted, or otherwise ignored each others’ works extensively (i.e. purposefully changed accounts from other Gospels in creating their own) then he is correct; they did utilize each other quite remarkably; so remarkably, in fact, that some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that Keener will be hard pressed to explain how it could have happened with such diligent and thorough authors utilizing their sources so carefully.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then clearly the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way on certain occasions to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of the minds of their own socio-cultural settings, their own interests washing away whatever theological agenda their predecessors held.  Why would this occur if they were “very carefully” utilizing their sources?  Careful use seems not to have bothered them much at all.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the texts, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

In Matthew, Jesus has just finished cleansing the temple after a very triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was already running away to Bethany to escape the guards who were looking to kill him.  He sleeps the night there and awakens the next day to head back into the city; along the way back Jesus decides he is hungry.  Luckily for him, fig trees were abundant.  Unlucky for the fig tree, it was out of season.  Jesus becomes infuriated; he had called but the tree had not answered.  Throwing what, in my opinion, is not much different than a childish temper-tantrum, he curses the tree and it withers “at once.” (Matt. 21:19)   The disciples all marvel and even ask each other “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matt. 21:20)  With a little teaching that follows, this ends Matthew’s fig tree story.  This event might be historical.  But the Gospel authors, who Keener suggests were far more knowledgeable of the circumstances of the accounts than we are, do not seem to come to any particular consensus about it.

Mark portrays Jesus as just making it into the city before realizing he must leave again.  After what seems to have been an exhausting day of entrances, it’s off to Bethany he goes to spend the night as it was “already late” (Mark 11:11).  Awaking the next morning, Jesus and his companions make their way back to Jerusalem.  And as before, on their way, Jesus became hungry; he had to build up his strength for all the table-throwing and scolding later on, it seems.  He approaches the fig tree, out of season, and curses the fig tree.  All of his disciples heard this curse. (Mark 11:14)  After a long day of cleansing the temple, throwing over tables, they again departed from the city to escape the plotting priests and scribes.  The next morning the disciples saw the fig tree withered away and “remembered” (ἀναμνησθεὶς) in Mark 11:20.

Luke, Keener’s prized historian and biographer, seems to have completely dismissed this event as it is described in the other two accounts.  Luke visualizes this narrative completely differently, presenting it as a parable instead. (Luke 13:6-9) In fact, the parable is told far from Jerusalem to the north, in Galilee, a full six chapters before the Triumphal Entry occurs in Luke’s narrative (essentially throwing off the chronology). An interesting aside might be to note that Luke doesn’t seem to recall ever spending the night in Bethany during his stay near Jerusalem with Jesus. Some might find Luke’s ignorance of this account rather embarrassing, especially if they are trying to argue for the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Luke.

John is not only clueless of the withering of the fig tree, but he doesn’t even present it as a parable!  Instead, John “remembers” Jesus calling Nathanael from under a fig tree (John 1:43-48), but beyond that, he is completely ignorant of any cursing, withering, fig tree incident.  But Matthew clearly writes that all the disciples marveled.  Not some, not a few, not two.  This is odd–as Keener points out, Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark, yet Mark states that all the disciples saw the fig tree withered the next day.  If Matthew and Luke cared so greatly about the accurate reporting of historical events, why did they change this part of Mark’s narrative?  If they “construed Mark as biography as well,” as Keener suggests, why did they alter (or remove entirely) this scene from their narratives?

Conspiring authors? Perhaps that was the intent, but they didn’t listen to each other.

This is only one example; there are countless more.  Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels.  When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious.  This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.  According to Keener, however, the Gospel authors are more useful as sources for a historical tradition than Arrian.  That thinking just makes no sense at all.

Any familiarity with Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri would immediately illustrate the difference in quality and demonstrate actually care for source material.  In fact, if one were looking for an example of Burridge’s ideological history written with coincidental and, perhaps, even unconscious links to Greco-Roman Biography, Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri is the best one we will find; yet it is dramatically unlike anything we see with the Gospel accounts.  In the very opening of his first book, he explains part of his method to the reader:

Wherever Ptolemy and Aristobulus in their histories of Alexander, the son of Philip, have given the same account, I have followed it on the assumption of its accuracy; where their facts differ I have chosen what I feel to be the more probable and interesting. (Anabasis Alexandri 1.1)

Like Philostratus, Arrian compares his sources, especially when they conflict (e.g., Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6). His sources, therefore, are also subject to criticism and evaluation (since we actually know what they are). Here with Arrian, as before with Philostratus, there is a direct engagement with the sources; one is not reading a story.  While some events display traits of a narrative, the reader is able to interact with it, to analyze the history with the narrator.  With the Gospel accounts there is no interaction with the narrative; the reader is moved along with the story, unable to analyze and critique it and, instead, is told that how the author of the Gospels wrote it is precisely how it occurred.[5]  There is never an instance where the Gospel authors take two separate accounts of an event and openly discuss which is more likely to have occurred, even though each Gospel portrays similar events differently, in different chronologies, with different individuals, and sometimes within different contexts and even locations.  What one reads is what one gets and, in almost every instance, what one gets is a theologically-driven exegetical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.[6]

Lycurgus

One final thought on the subject: It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus.  There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions).  Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se.  Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).  An example one might find of a fictional hero who is historicized in a Greco-Roman biography is Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Spartan lore.  Plutarch dedicates a biography to him, complete with genealogy; but his attestation goes well beyond this.  Lycurgus gets honorable mentions and is discussed by Plato (Republic 10.599d), Aristotle (Politics 2.1270a, Rhetoric 2.23.11), Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1), Polybius (Histories 4.2, 6.10), Josephus (Against Apion 2.220), Isocrates (Panathenaicus 12.152), Epictetus (Discourses 2.20), Tacitus (Annals 3.26), and Livy (History of Rome 38.34) to name a few.  But it is unlikely that Lycurgus was any more real than Romulus, of whom several Greco-Roman biographies are extant (Plutarch, Romulus; also Livy dedicates his first book of From the Founding of the City to the life of Romulus; stories of his life and deeds can also be found in ancient historiographies (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2).  The figure of Romulus is attested in works from Ovid (Fasti), Cicero (Laws, Republic), and to Tertullian (Apology). It may also be useful to note in passing that among these selected works mentioning Romulus there exists a tale of his death, resurrection, and rebirth to the figure of Quirinus.   This is merely to point out that even if the Gospels were portrayed as Greco-Roman biographies, it would not imply eo ipso that they are historically useful.

At the end of the day, Schumacher does not take into account the differences between the genre of a real Greco-Roman biography like one written by Philostratus, Plutarch, or Arrian, and the narrative stories of the Gospels.  Like Burridge and Keener, Schumacher only focuses on the superficial similarities of the genre, rather than a real detailed analysis like I have provided here.  This seems to be the trouble with some apologist commentators who lack a strong or dedicated Classics background.

But while Schumacher, et al, may be wrong, so is the anonymous atheist.  Making anachronistic comparisons are misleading and overstate their case.  One cannot (or should not) use modern genres as a useful comparison; instead, ancient epics or ancient Jewish fiction writing would have made a more palatable choice (like Michael Vines or Thomas Thompson argue).  So no one really seems to be the winner in this debate.  But that is often the case when I come across a discussion between a Christian apologist and an atheist when it comes to the Bible–a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of talking past one another.  And this is rather unfortunate.

On the plus side, I got to demonstrate, once more, how completely logically flawed it is to associate the Gospels with Greco-Roman biography.


[1] Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2002), 214.

[2] What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)

[3] What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

[4] Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002), 7-19.

[5] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards. Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect. He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.” (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality. Not even the author of Luke, with his brief preface to Theophilus, can come close to this methodology.  R. Carrier argues this persuasively that Luke does not function well as a historian or biographer; see his discussion in Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu Press, 2009), 173-87.

[6] This author tends to agree with the statement on the Gospels by Samuel Sandmel, “If the historical statements they make chance to be reliable, this is only coincidence,” from ‘Prolegomena to a Commentary on Mark,’ in Two Living Traditions: Essays on Religion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), 149.

Dating Luke-Acts: Joe Tyson on Bible and Interpretation

Joe Tyson has another great article at Bible and Interpretation discussing the various implications for dating Luke-Acts, and argues persuasively in my opinion for a late date.  Please do read the article, entitled ‘When and Why Was the Acts of the Apostles Written?‘.  Here are some snippets:

The range of proposed dates for Acts is quite wide, from c. 60 CE-150 CE. Within this range of dates, three are prominent in the scholarly literature: an early, an intermediate, and a late date.

A growing number of scholars prefer a late date for the composition of Acts, i.e., c. 110-120 CE.3 Three factors support such a date. First, Acts seems to be unknown before the last half of the second century. Second, compelling arguments can be made that the author of Acts was acquainted with some materials written by Josephus, who completed his Antiquities of the Jews in 93-94 CE. If the author of Acts knew of some pieces from this document, he could not have written his book before that date. Third, recent studies have revised the judgment that the author of Acts was unaware of the Pauline letters. Convincing arguments have been made especially in the case of Galatians by scholars who are convinced that the author of Acts not only knew this Pauline letter but regarded it as a problem and wrote to subvert it.4 They especially call attention to the verbal and ideational similarities between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 and show how the dif-ferences may be intended to create a distance between Paul and some of his later interpreters and critics.

A great deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts, which unfortunately cannot be de-termined with certainty. But judgments about the probable time of its composition inevitably af-fect the ways we read the book. If we think it was an early eye-witness account, it may be read as a basically reliable story of the first Christian generation. If we think it was written toward the end of the first century, we might read it with an effort to assess the author’s understanding of Christianity as a Gentile movement with Jewish roots but without Jewish believers. If we think it was a second-century text, we might regard it as an effort to counteract historical and theological teachings that challenged what the author believed to be basic to the Christian movement. This way of reading Acts would show that its author played a central role in the very process of defin-ing Christianity.6

When and Why Was the Acts of the Apostles Written? - The Bible and Interpretation.

James McGrath: “Are Some Forms of Mythicism Self-Contradictory?”

See James’ interesting discussion on his blog.  Here is a snippet to get the conversation going:

Let me emphasize from the outset that I am talking about a particular brand of mythicism, one well represented in discussions on blogs like Vridar as well as by commenters here at Exploring Our Matrix.

It is the type of mythicism which asserts that it is impossible to deduce the historicity of events on the basis only of details in texts.

via Exploring Our Matrix.

I would say James is correct, to a point.  His example here is a good one.   As a minimalist, however, I feel that basing historicity to a certain high level of probability (in either direction) based solely on the text is as disingenuous as it is dangerous.

For example, saying that it is highly probable (something like a consensus-conforming figure–over 75% or so) that certain figures in the Biblical narratives are historical based on nothing but the text is, as far as the evidence goes, dishonest. Of course this is specifically scenario-dependent (this is more true for certain figures than others, and context plays a role).

In the introduction and first chapter of my ‘Of Men and Muses’ I bring up the problems associated with making probabilistically-positive historical claims about figures in ancient literature.  Thomas L. Thompson is quite right, for example, when he writes:

We do get an accumulating body of stories from such works as Josephus writes and from the traditional historiographies given in the Bible, but it is a mistake to suppose that we can use one text to confirm what another says about the past.  The most important historical information we can learn from such ancient historiography has very little to do with the quality of their history, and almost nothing to do with what they say about the past.  (The Mythic Past, 2000; p. 10)

Philip Davies would agree:

No story, and that includes the stories our memories generate, is ever an innocent or objective representation of the outside world. All story is fiction, and that must include historiography. (In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, 1999; p. 13)

Ancient sources are not the recordings of ‘what happened’.  Such a notion was the furthest thing from the minds of the Biblical authors–indeed, even Livy and Tacitus had little concern for ‘what happened’ when ‘what happened’ was an inconvenience for their overall agenda or rhetorical message.  And whereas the Gospel authors sought to make more of a theological point than a historical one (if history played any part in the minds of the authors at all, it was merely to supplement the theological message), historical verisimilitude becomes even more elusive.

But by ‘elusive’ I do not mean to suggest that it is ‘deceptive fiction’.  Simply because we cannot find evidence for it does not mean eo ipso that we are talking about a deliberate attempt to mislead as Philip also points out that directly dismissing the text is just as dangerous.  After all, strange things happen so records of strange things are not automatically dubious.  Agnosticism towards historicity is still recommended.   So in this, James is absolutely correct.

RBL: Richard I. Pervo’s ‘The Making of Paul’

A review by James Aageson for the RBL of Pervo’s new book The Making of Paul: Constructions of the Apostle in Early Christianity is now available online!  I am anxious to pick up a copy of this volume myself.  I have been waiting for someone to tackle this subject and Pervo’s scholarship is generally as spot-on as it is compelling.  Here is a snippet:

This outstanding volume is the most current and complete book written in English on the development and diversity of Paul’s legacy in the early church, despite Pervo’s disclaimer to it being a comprehensive work. It is well-researched, thorough, insightful, and pleasingly written. The author’s desire for completeness results in an approach to the topic that might be described as a survey, in the best sense of that term, of authors and texts. It is well-organized, accessible, and devoid of unnecessary detail. Following the introduction, he addresses how Paul became a book, how the tradition was shaped in the pseudepigraphic Pauline letters, what became of Paul in early Christian epistolary and narrative tradition, and how he fared among the anti-Paulinists as well as those for whom he became an object of interpretation. The analyses in this book are based on serious attention to the texts but are at least one step removed from straightforward exegesis. Analysis and synthesis are the methodological order of the day, and in that regard the argument is well done. The breadth of learning that has gone into this study is impressive, and all those who follow Pervo into this field will need to reckon with his arguments and judgments.

The thesis of this book is that the only real Paul is the dead Paul. Even though some of Paul’s actual words undoubtedly survive, the entire Pauline corpus has gone through a process of selection and editing that served the needs of varied and diverse early Christian communities.

7537_8226.pdf (application/pdf Object).

In the end, though, I must also agree with the reviewer who writes:

The realization that this process of development was extremely fluid and layered with complexity over time makes it difficult to make simple historical generalizations, let alone identify with confidence dependencies in the tradition. The hybrids and transmutations are too varied to move historically much beyond the notion of trajectories.

Lessons in Sumerian Math on Display

Pretty cool! (H/T to ISAW on Facebook! cf. http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/)

Thirteen of the tablets are on display until Dec. 17 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, part of New York University. Many are the exercises of students learning to be scribes. Their plight was not to be envied. They were mastering mathematics based on texts in Sumerian, a language that even at the time was long since dead. The students spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language unrelated to Sumerian. But both languages were written in cuneiform, meaning wedge-shaped, after the shape of the marks made by punching a reed into clay.

via Lessons in Sumerian Math on Display – NYTimes.com.

‘The End(s) of Historical Criticism’ by Michael C. Legaspi

I realize I’m a little late in posting this.  Quite an excellent article overall.  I especially enjoyed this bit (also, I agree with and support it, as should you!):

Biblical studies is, at present, still a cultural and social project, one that exists principally as an alternative to traditional and confessional modes of biblical interpretation. John Collins of Yale, the eminent historical critic, has made precisely this point. In a presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, he suggested that biblical critics can help stem religious violence by “noting the diversity of viewpoints in the Bible” in order to “relativize the more problematic ones.”4 In doing so, scholars prevent readers from adopting any settled convictions about what the Bible actually says. In this way, the critic can demonstrate to any true believers ready to take up the sword that “certitude” about the meaning of the Bible is merely an “illusion.”

via The Bible and Interpretation.  Read on here: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/legaspi357930.shtml

 

Minimalism and Ancient Historiography

In a recent discussion about the esteemed Jim West’s erudite explanation of minimalism over at Bible and Interpretation, J. R. Daniel Kirk wrote the following (towards the end of an excellent blogessay):

But before signing up for the guild of biblical minimalists, I’d want to ask if the bifurcation and choosing of sides between historical maximalism and theological minimalism isn’t, itself, a function of the same modern tendency that brought us the concern with the a-theological historical in the first place? Before we loop Luke into the cause, it seems important to ask if, as an ancient historian, he had a more mixed category of history and theology that makes his work, to his mind, thoroughly both–even while it undermines the modern concerns with historiography as a discipline?

And if so, then that brings up the question of how different Luke is from ancient historians. If it is a matter of quantity of God- (or other propaganda-) overlay rather than quality of historiography, it seems that what we “know” from the Gospels might be not so different from anything else we might “know” about the ancient world. It’s an honest question (not merely rhetorical): how much more against the grain to we have to read the Gospels to get at “what really happened” than we’d have to read against the grain of Herodotus, Plutarch, or Julius Caesar?

These two paragraphs symbolize, perhaps without Daniel’s knowledge, the troubles within the academe.  In addressing these (rather astute) questions, I hope to bring some clarity to a position I have become quite familiar with, that is, the subject of ancient historiography.  After all, can Luke really be considered an ancient historian?  And can we, after Jim’s discussion of the subject, as the chroniclers of the past, really lump Luke together with Julius Caesar, Herodotus, Polybius, or for that matter Thucydides?  Herein is where the underlying problem comes to bare its teeth.

If Luke is a historian, what is it that separates him (or her, as some argue) from the rest of the Gospel authors (and, lest we forget, there are more than four)?  What is it that makes Luke a better historian than, say, the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?  One might say ‘time’, but really this is a weak argument.  Arrian, our most notable and worthy ancient historiographer, wrote hundreds of years after the death of Alexander the Great, yet his history of his campaigns are impressive—it is the best representation of historiography from the past (though they still fall short of today’s stands).  And I have argued before that one writing immediately after the supposed events are at times more likely to conceal or change the portrayal of the facts or events due to bias.  If it is rhetoric or theology that separates the historical value of Luke from the other Gospels, it is a well supported fact that out of all the canonical Gospels, Luke used more rhetoric than all the rest of the canonical Gospels!   One would be hardpressed to ignore the glaring influences of Roman education and classical literature on Luke.

In retrospect, Jim is correct that a Gospel, whether we can create ex nihilo such a genre sui generis or not, cannot be lumped in with other historiographical genres.  While it is certain that Thucydides fabricated more than 25% of his history (and he was an eyewitness!), his reasons for fabricating the past are different than Luke’s.  And a wise man once told me that it is naïve to assume that all historical works from the past are equal and can be judged equally.  That point, too, is relevant here.

However, I believe this is a case where the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Can it really be said that Luke resembles an ancient historian?  S/he certainly doesn’t come close to Arrian, our ideal ancient historian.  But does it fare better when compared to others?  Putting aside the Gospel authors’ reliance upon theological, rather than historical, situations, the Gospels are written as narratives whereas the basic foundations of most Greco-Roman biographies or histories are that they are discussed.  While it may seem like a superficial thing to separate, there is a difference.  On the one hand, the Gospel author is anonymous while, on the other, one is much more confident knowing who wrote the secular histories and biographies.   To further evaluate the difference between a biography/history and a narrative (as we have them in the Gospels), some examples shall suffice.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by an individual calling himself Philostratus.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point, but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

Arrian, also, will always be an ideal historian from antiquity.  Comparatively, there is no competition here between him and the Gospel authors. Even as late as Arrian is, Arrian uses methods that surpass those methods used (if any were used at all) by the Gospel authors.  For example, Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight (e.g.,  Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6).  Also, many of the cited works Arrian uses are known from other contemporary, earlier and later sources.[1] In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great, which corroborate Arrian’s history, from manuscripts,[2] artwork (busts), coins, and inscriptions.[3] If we had this sort of data for the Gospel narratives, if they had used this sort of methodology, there would be no need to discuss the differences between minimalists and maximalists.  We’d all be maximalists and Jim West would be a founding member of the William Dever fan club (maybe)!

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography and historiography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.[4] On the other hand, the hard truth is that the Gospels were not written independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  They don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark, and probably even copies of the epistles (and maybe even a few pastorals).  It is clear that this was the case, just from the internal data.  For example, some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that those who wish to argue for their consistency will be hard pressed to explain their contrary existence.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then it must be stated plainly that the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of their own minds, their own individual theological interests.  Following strict or even lax historiographical methods seems to be the furthest thing from their minds.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered them much at all, in fact, that they were changing the past as they saw fit—if that was indeed what they were doing.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the text, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

Luke, though he opened his/her Gospel with a historiographical-style preface, follows the exact trend that Matthew followed (granted, with different results) once he started the narrative itself. We do not have these methods because Luke was not interested in history, nor were any other Gospel authors, and if Luke resembles a historian it is only because s/he was imitating the chroniclers of the books, those of which s/he had access to, of the Hebrew Bible (or, for those who are going to be fussy about it, the Septuagint).  But neither Luke, nor Mark, nor Matthew, were writing historiographies.  They were writing theologies.  Whether they understood them as historical or not has its own implications which deserve attention.  But this does bring this discussion back around to the question at hand:  How does one accurately determine what we can know about the past from ancient literary (term used reluctantly) evidence?

I believe, though, that this is a question that we, as the preservers of society’s memories, should be asking about every text we look at.  Instead of clumping Luke and Mark and Paul in the “more likely true because we believe it” category, we examine each text as it stands against the weight of the data we already have (mainly against primary sources) and, if such an instance were to occur that we lack primary evidence, the text itself becomes the artifact.  The text then should be scrutinized, as one might critical look at any text from an educated individual schooled in rhetoric and the art of imitation, to determine its veracity, it’s value—whether historical or theological (or, if the case may be, both—such as with Josephus or Philo where they contain theological, political, and historical value).  Arrian has been shown to be generally accurate (of course, he is far from perfect), and as a result we can say with some level of certainty that his history represents the best data we currently have on the life of Alexander the Great outside of primary evidence (in fact, we can say that Arrian’s history is in some cases just as good as primary evidence, because he is so reliable).  Similarly, we can say that Cicero—despite all his crankiness and his hateful polemics—represents excellent historical attestation for Caesar.  After all, he was an enemy of the man and his words have more value because of it.  We can say, simply from accounts of Caesar from other people, that he crossed the Rubicon.  And we can say that with a very high level of certainty, a level which does not exist for anything in the Gospel narrative—not even the crucifixion.

Again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Neither Arrian, nor Cicero, were writing theological treatises, or theological narratives.  They intended to chronicle the accounts for other reasons.  Thucydides, as well, is very clear about his intentions and, unlike Luke (who states his/her intentions but does not follow through with them), remains very consistent throughout his history of the Peloponnesian war.  Even if his speeches are fiction, his geography screwy, his polemics hyperbolic, we can trust some of what he says because it can be verified through other means.  He was not writing a theological essay but a polemical history.  Therein rests the difference.

That is not to say that I feel that Luke has no historical value.  There is historical value in even Lucian’s Philopseudes and his True Stories.  Even when Lucian writes “But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar” (Vera Hist., 1.4), he cannot get away from the fact that he is a product of the period.  He is a result of history as much as he is a producer of it.  However, we must once more accept what Jim has to say; “what”, “who”, and “when” are not the questions we should be asking about theological texts.  These are just the wrong questions all together.  Now, whether or not one considers the Gospels to be purely theological is yet debated (I tend to think they are).  Once one can establish the intentions and genre of the literary piece, deciding what questions that needs to be asked will come easier.


[1] While I hold Arrian’s methods high, they fall short of modern standards.  Even though Arrian is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect.  He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.”  (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) If a “good” ancient historian like Arrian can still succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be concerned with how much bias effects those ancient historians of lesser quality.

[2] The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

[3] Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias.  See B.F. Cook, Greek inscriptions (1987), p. 21-22.

[4] To be perfectly clear here, that does not mean that we take Philostratus’ word on everything, or even most things, however it does mean that the two types of literature are opposed, rather than equatable.

Dennis R. MacDonald Defends Mimesis Criticism

He writes:

For more than two decades I have been investigating the influence of classical Greek literature on early Christian texts and have published four books and nearly a dozen articles on the topic, especially on the influence of the Homeric epics on the New Testament writings ascribed to Mark and Luke. I call this controversial methodology “mimesis criticism” to distinguish it from source, form, social-scientific, rhetorical, and literary criticisms. To this point I have not answered my critics directly, but two published reviews of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark have picked a fight that I cannot avoid. One by Margaret M. Mitchell of the University of Chicago appeared in The Journal of Religion; Karl Olav Sandnes of Norway published an article on my methodology in The Journal of Biblical Literature.

Simply stated, a mimesis critic assesses a text for literary influences that one might classify as imitations instead of citations, paraphrases, allusions, echoes, or redactions. In ancient narratives such imitations usually obtain to characterizations, motifs, and plot—seldom to wording. Many such imitations disguise their dependence on an “antetext” (a term I prefer to the more ambiguous word “intertext”) by creating a hybrid that borrows from several models, what one might call “mimetic eclecticism.” Sophisticated imitations, on the other hand, may advertise their dependence so that readers benefit from a comparison of the text to its model. Such a rivalry or emulation may “transvalue” its target by replacing the perspective of the model with another.

It’s an engaging and provocative article.  Read on here: http://iac.cgu.edu/drm/My_Turn.pdf

The Jesus Project: Offering Another Perspective on the Chilton-Hoffmann-Crossley Exchange

By Thomas Verenna

James Crossley recently commented on the exchange between Bruce Chilton and R. Joseph Hoffmann. I would like to weigh in with my own opinions on this recent exchange. I can only hope that my suggestions will prove useful to the Project and continue to generate the sort of dialog we have seen so far in the community. Although I respect James and Bruce a great deal, I feel some of their advice may be misplaced when one considers the goals of the Jesus Project as a whole. Overall I agree with where they feel the Jesus Project’s focus needs to be. This is a gem from James’ article which I feel was overlooked by the Jesus Seminar and should not be underestimated in the Jesus Project’s investigations:

There is enough work on social history and social anthropology and enough empirical data collected and analyzed to exploit these issues. Areas ripe for exploitation might include: social networks, ethnic interaction, and the origins of gentile inclusion; class-conflicts and the emergence of a new religion; universal monotheism, developments in communication, and the origins of the deification of Jesus; and so on. In each case, the influence of Jesus the individual could be tested.

It is unfortunate that he employed these suggestions in such a limited and narrowed manner (applying these issues specifically to “the influence of Jesus the individual”). They can and should be expanded upon (instead of the “individual Jesus” which implies historicity, for example, these articles should be tested against the character or figure of Jesus, the authors intent, matters of intertextuality, literary composition, and the development of textual-tradition in the Jewish communities and later Christian communities throughout the ANE). I agree with James that these “ripe issues” are often overlooked or misrepresented by historical Jesus scholars. With the exception of a few scholars off the top of my head (Crossan and Mack most prevalent in my mind, but there are perhaps others as well), the Jesus Seminar et al seems to ignore the lack of orthodoxy in Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, instead opting for the dated perspective that Jews had some sort of unified interpretation of who and what the Messiah would be (and ignore the conclusions of the Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins in 1987 onward). The focus of too many studies rest entirely on Jesus’ sayings and deeds, as James rightly points out (but ironically, he is guilty of in his own study when he compares sayings and deeds to Talmudic sayings and deeds). But while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is done in an often backwards manner (the method of voting comes to mind, used by the Jesus Seminar; thankfully voting will not be used by the JP) or where authorial intent is often ignored or taken for granted–sometimes to ridiculous proportions (like N.T. Wright’s perspective that the author of Matthew 27:52 documented honestly that the saints really did rise from the dead and walked around Jerusalem).

I would like to see some of the project dedicated to textual structure, narrative creation, model use, eponymic character creation (often indicated by how their names correspond with their actions in the narrative), and to some extent, liturgy (in the sense that we must challenge long-held presuppositions about Paul’s letters being read aloud to congregations of Christians; likewise the Gospels) and the development of “Christian” as a designation (and what came before); these should be explored without the shackles of commonly-held presumptions. In other words, I feel some portion of the project should ask why the Gospel/Acts/epistle/pastoral authors wrote and who they wrote to. These questions cannot be answered as they have been previously (as Philip Davies would put it, “because it happened” is not an adequate reason).

Other questions should also be considered. Could those who read them be considered “full-knowing readers”? Did the authors intend to have their works read as history or something else? Can it be decided what genres we’re dealing with? It cannot be supposed that the Gospels are Graeco-Roman biographies, as Charles Talbert had suggested, as this has been challenged more recently by several scholars like Mary Ann Tolbert, Michael E. Vines, Thomas L. Thompson and Dennis R. MacDonald (the latter two being a part of the JP). Answering the question of genre (as well as the other questions proposed above) will not only provide for the project a new direction by which to judge the New Testament literature, but will answer some of those “big, big questions” that James talked about. If it is determined that the genre of the Gospel of Mark is Jewish Novel (and not Jewish/Graeco-Roman biography or history) that changes the direction of several perspectives, does it not? As Kurt Noll has discussed in a recent SBL article (Why Does the New Testament Exist?, SBL 2008), textual interpretation can change as rapidly as cultural memes, especially in antiquity. Where a letter may have been written with one purpose in mind, that would not change others from using the letter for another purpose entirely. So it may be that Mark’s intention was lost on the second wave of readers or used in a manner he never intended, much like how Paul’s letters were thrown about and used by different sects of Christianity in the second-third centuries CE. The answer cannot be known without first asking, then investigating the questions.

I also fear that Bruce and James are a bit biased in their desires to incorporate Aramaic scholars into the Project. After all, if you start with the assumption that “Jesus spoke Aramaic” (as both Bruce and James do), there would have to be some urgency to incorporate scholars into the project who can authoritatively speak about it, right? While Aramaic scholars should be included for other reasons, and while I feel they are useful for socio-cultural investigations, what should be apparent to everyone is that the statement “Jesus spoke Aramaic” is precisely what has yet been investigated and is not something we should start off assuming. If it can be shown that Jesus existed historically, in some form, using the specific methodologies this Project is working towards perfecting now, the question of “which language Jesus spoke” will have to be asked. But, it will have to be asked while investigating the socio-cultural world of that particular figure of Jesus. It can not even be suggested that Jesus was a Galilean (another oft-to assumed “fact”) and therefore spoke Aramaic, as this subject has also not been investigated thoroughly (it has only been assumed based on readings from the Gospels alone)–nor can it be investigated until the question of historicity has been established in any detail. Until then, all scholars on the project should be open to the possibility that the answer to the question “did Jesus exist” might make their questions obsolete (including those of mythicists–that statement was not just directed towards historicists). Remembering that fact (i.e. every perspective we now have might be turned on its head) will hopefully generate more interesting, thought-provoking questions that will likewise bring about more thought-provoking studies and one-on-one interactions between participants.

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