James McGrath has an interesting article analyzing Neil Godfrey’s blog post from earlier today. But while I enjoyed the read (James seems to be more open about a lot of these issues, even possibly allowing for a state of uncertainty–something I am quite impressed with), I did have some concerns and would like to stress (take note of) some difficulties. My points of contention rest with his bullet points. He writes:
But even if we were certain in such instances that they are all cases of “Scripture historicized,” does this lead naturally to the view that all the stories in the Gospels are examples of this? Hardly. There are three main issues:
- First, Spong, Price, Godfrey and others seem to think that this approach to composition is in fact what the rabbis called “Midrash.” It is not. It does not resemble what scholars call midrash, nor does it fit with any known compositional technique for creating entire stories evidenced in any ancient literature with which I am familiar.
- Second, they seem to think that if you can find a slight similarity with another story, then it automatically becomes preferable to treat the later story as an invention based on the earlier one. That might not follow even if the similarities were clear; it certainly does not when the alleged parallels and points of contact are few and unconvincing.
- Finally, to the extent that this approach to composition may fit some details in the Gospels, this compositional technique makes sense as part of Christians’ attempt to fill in their knowledge of Jesus from Scripture, which they considered an authoritative source. But it makes much less sense as a means of creating a purely fictional Jesus taking inspiration from earlier literature.
1. My concerns are quite simple. With regards to the first, he is correct. Most scholars (though not all, I believe Thomas Thompson and others have argued that the Gospels do, in fact, reflect Midrash–and they are qualified to say otherwise) do suggest that Midrash is other than what the Gospel genre is. And over the past six decades, scholars have argued towards defining the Gospels precisely because they do not fit neatly into any particular category.
Bultmann argued, for example, that the Gospels were a new genre (which I tend to think is correct…more on this in a moment), but he labeled them (or, at least, Mark) as the genre of ‘Gospel’; a type of genre which was enriched not by history and culture, but my the eschatological message–such that the genre itself was not at all considered with historical events whatsoever. Others, like Charles Talbert, argued that the Gospels best reflected Roman biographies, built upon legendary historical figures, overstating things to make them better or more idealized.
But there are problems for both of these sorts of arguments, many of them highlighted by more recent endeavors at tackling the question of genre (like those of Thomas L. Brodie in his massive tome on intertextuality in the New Testament which is somewhere around 600 pages, and I highly recommend it for those who wish to argue this sort of subject matter professionally; also Michael Vines’ book on the genre of the Gospel of Mark), and they handle the arguments much better than I can on my blog. However, I’m not so sure that we can classify the Gospels using other genre. On this, I believe Bultmann had it right.
The Gospels, after all, might very well be the start of a new type of literary genre (even if it were another type, we must agree that a genre has to have a ‘start’), which then sprung forth from the 1st century following the success of Mark; after all, following that Gospel (or the proto-Gospel of Mark, whichever) we have a plethora of new Gospels which seem to continue into the early Middle Ages. Mark might very well have revolutionized the literature style himself, but it is clear that it does not follow the normalcy of what we would expect to see in Greco-Roman biographies (see my arguments here against Greco-Roman biography classifications of the Gospels). In fact I feel the case is quite strong, after all, since genres have to arise from somewhere, at some time. So it is perhaps an unfair criticism by James that “it [didn’t] fit with any known compositional technique for creating entire stories evidenced in any ancient literature with which I am familiar.” That might very well be because it is a new form of composition and a new genre from anything which might have come before.
In addition, it does not, therefore, mean that we can automatically classify it as a work written about a historical or metaphorical (etymological, eschatological) figure. We must analyze it as a new genre itself. Here, also, I feel that Bultmann was correct; the author of Mark, at the very least, but I would argue all of them, cared little for the historical world. Their message seems to be theological throughout. As I’ve said before, I’ll say again: The Gospel authors wrote for their own reasons, with their own rhetoric, using existing material (which, sans James’ second point–tackled later–can be demonstrated easily), expressing sometimes conflicting theological messages which contradict an earlier Gospel narrative. One must wonder why, if Mark is the priority on the historical figure, that Luke and Matthew change so much of the story if they were writing, as James remarks, about a historical figure? Thus, these questions plague the concern that James expresses in his first point.
2. This point seems to be based on whether or not James finds the parallels convincing; I, for one, am cautious about using this sort of strong language. Which parallels does James find unconvincing, for example? The whole passion narrative and Psalm 22, with Leviticus 16? I have to say that such language is very clear to me that Mark was drawing directly from these passages to create his narrative. Is it possible that he was searching the scripture in an attempt to explain Jesus’ death because, as James believes, it had been far too embarrassing? I don’t believe that to be the case and it can be demonstrated that in some instances Jews were expecting a humiliated and murdered Messiah. Daniel 9:25-26 comes to mind (see comments below for additional notes on ancient interpretations of these verses):
Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One (the Hebrew here is מָשִׁ֫יחַ, or mashiach–Messiah) the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing.
Psalm 22 might have even been the influence behind this passage, being that anyone writing in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods would likely have had access to the Pslams (as is shown by their availability to certain Jewish communities in antiquity and even the Qumran sect). So I am not quite sure why James would even argue this point; some clearly find the intertextual references here, in this very vital part of the narrative, quite convincing. In fact it seems more convoluted to say that the author of Mark scoured the scriptures in search of a passage which, conveniently, matches the exact way Jesus is always portrayed to have died. If James wishes to argue that the convenience is because the author invented the Passion narrative based on a historical figure who was crucified, he will have to produce that figure. After all, we have no record of that figure at all. Not even in extrabiblical sources–they all follow the Passion narrative, which Bultmann rightly attributes to a kerygmatic tradition.
Intertextuality in the Bible and all ancient literature is not a fringe idea in scholarship and James would do well to acknowledge that there is an entire field of mainstream scholarship dedicated to imitation and the practice of μίμησις by all authors (not some, not a few, not many–all) in antiquity. And the evidence is quite clear that authors in the so-called Second Sophistic were quite adept at creating whole individuals from scratch, some later believed (I would argue Lycurgus the lawgiver of Sparta as an example, yet again)! While James is right to be cautious and recommend caution with regards to authorial intent (it is, indeed, something difficult to argue for–but it is possible and has been done), he should not dismiss it so easily or readily. Lest we forget, more than a few early Christian church fathers argued that Tobit was a real figure, who did real things, as was laid out in the book bearing this fictional characters name! As well, Palaephatus argued that Centaur’s were real people; I’m sure it was not that much of a stretch for a movement to evolve around a fictional character. After all, could it not be said that Moses–a fictional character bearing similar traits to Jesus–was well believed to be a historical figure by thousands of Jews throughout their history. James should really acknowledge these when he makes assertions about this sort of subject; even if he does not agree with every claim (and I don’t either), clarifying these points will only help his argument if he decides to actually present a case against these parallels (which, as of yet, I am uncertain as to the ones he means specifically).
Now, if James is speaking of parallelism (i.e. the sort promoted by Zeitgeist mythicists), he is correct. They are often flat out wrong. They are unsupported by any sort of documentation or archaeological evidence . So if these are the unconvincing arguments he speaks of, he has my support here.
3. On the third point, James claims with some authority; yet I am not aware that he nor any scholar has argued convincingly (or at all) that this happened in antiquity. Do we have evidence to support that this is what Christians were doing (i.e., do you have evidence somewhere that narratives like this had ‘historicized scripture’ written to hide truths about a historical figures)? Or, instead, is James basing this statement on his presupposition that Jesus existed and Christians knew it, leading to the inevitable conclusion that this is why they ‘historicized scripture’?
Whereas we have plenty of examples of fictional stories based solely, entirely, on ‘historicizing scripture’ to create edifying fictions and, as demonstrated above, we have ample evidence of fictionalized characters being historicized and believed in (Euhemerus, for the win). Sometimes historians even created whole fictional historicized events (like Alexander the Greats march on Jerusalem found in Josephus) based on nothing but scripture to get across a theological message. And yet not a single historian that we know of ever criticized Josephus’ fictionalizing of the event (and some even flat-out believed him at face value–hell, some still believe his account today!). I am not saying this happened with certainty, as far as the Gospels are concerned. But it is only fair that James acknowledge that this did in fact happen. Jewish/Christian authors were very skilled at this sort of ‘genre’.
But again, to reiterate, the claim that they were historicizing scripture to hide embarrassing details about Jesus makes no sense (we have no examples of this, sans those created on the premise, or based solely on presuppositions, that Jesus existed–the very point in dispute!). As a result, James might want to consider qualifying the third point more, admitting that this is merely speculation based on a possible probability (yet to be demonstrated) that, if Christians had known of a historical figure of Jesus, this is what they might have done, and why we see examples of ‘historicized scripture’.
Filed under: Ancient Literature, Belief, Biblioblogging, Defining Mythicism, Imitatio, Jesus, Minimalism, New Testament, Scholarship Tagged: | christianity, historical jesus, historicity, James McGrath, jesus, mythicism