The Portrayal of the Disciples: What is the Big Deal?

Today I was defriended on Facebook by someone I consider to be a friend.  Why?  I’m not quite sure, since this same person often goes on at lengths about convictions and academic freedom and the ability to argue without being censored (so long as you don’t hide behind anonymity).  But the conversation started when my friend tried to argue that the disciples were not uneducated and ignorant, they were akin to grad students because they were under the study of a Rabbi.

In my opinion (and I’m not the only one who argues this), the perspective that the disciples were uneducated and ignorant stems from the evangelists portrayal of them in the Gospels.  I believe it to be a literary tool and a function of the text; it elevates the figure of Jesus in the Gospels to a higher status of brilliance when you surround him with people who are just dull and witless.  To quote Dennis MacDonald:

“More than any other gospel, Mark depict Jesus’ disciples as fearful, unfaithful, and uncomprehending.  Even though Jesus had told them explicitly about the “mystery” of God’s rule, they repeatedly demonstrated their failure to understand.  Four of them were fishermen, but when tossed about by a storm at sea, they were helpless.  Jesus had to force the Twelve to sail without him, and they mistook him walking on the waves for a phantom, quickly forgot that he could multiply loaves and fish, could not understand that he must suffer and die, argued with each other concerning who was the greatest, vied for privileged places in the afterlife, and squabbled like petulant children.” (D.R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark [YUP; 2000], 20)

MacDonald provides some additional resources on this in his endnotes on the section.  My only point was that the portrayal of these disciples is where many get their impression of them as ignorant.  But some how, my friend thought I was making an entirely different argument: he apparently thought I was arguing they didn’t exist.  This isn’t what I said and I brought this up to him in another comment.  I clarified, that portrayals in ancient texts do not have any direct implication on the historicity behind the portrayals.

He responded, quite apologetically in my humble opinion, that the portrayals were based  upon historical reconstructions.  But this is not necessarily the case.  I challenged him to present evidence for such a maximalist claim (William Dever argues something akin to this about figures in the Old Testament) and in return he called me desperate.

So I asked him some questions, thinking that perhaps I was not being clear:

(a) It *may* be true that portrayals of ancient figures have some historical kernels, but not always.  How would one prove that a portrayal of someone is the same as ones historical figure?

(b) It *may* be true that the portrayals in the gospels of the disciples are either somewhat or wholly based upon historical events; but how–that is, by what criteria–can one determine which event is historical and which isn’t?

Keep in mind, I wasn’t saying the disciples weren’t historical–I was questioning the validity of the portrayals of them in the gospels.  I think such a question is quite reasonable.  Clearly my friend disagreed, since he said ‘farewell’ and then promptly removed me from his friends list.

But not before he made some suggestions of criteria: the criterion of embarrassment (which is completely fallacious and has been demolished in recent years as a terrible criterion) and the criterion of multiple attestation (ditto to the last).  I’ve written on this before here.

For examples of how the criteria for historical Jesus studies have been criticized, see M. Goodacre, ‘Criticizing the Criterion of Multiple Attestation: The Historical Jesus and the Question of Sources’ in Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne, eds., Jesus, History and the Demise of Authenticity (London & New York: T & T Clark, forthcoming, 2012), R. Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu Press, 2009) and his Proving History, and R. Rodríguez, ‘Authenticating Criteria: The Use and Misuse of a Critical Method’, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7/2 (2009), 155-6.

He may very well disagree with these assessments, but just removing me?  Calling me desperate?  I’m not sure that was the best way to deal with the situation.  I would like to believe this person respects open dialogue enough, respects critical questions enough, respects academic freedom enough (he’s written enough on these subjects) that he will reconsider this action.  He is a brilliant guy and says a lot of useful things and I think he’s hilarious.  Would be a shame if things ended on such a bizarre reaction to some honest questions.

7 Responses

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever defriended someone over an intellectual disagreement, though I did hide someones updates as they were mostly pro Ron Paul messages delivered in capital letters and many excalmation points.

    On the education of the diciples, while i agree that the way Mark portrays them is for the benifit of his story, not what may have beeen believed of the diciples, I don’t see anything to suggest they esspecially educated eithier. I do thionk that those that assume Jesus was illiterate because most people in his position are are makingh to broad a genralization. Most gallian peasents didn’t lead religious movements eithier. I don’t think the evidence we have can really tell us with any confidence just how educated these guys were.

  2. […] read a post over at Thomas Verenna’s blog tonight that I found very interesting. He had been discussing […]

  3. Do you think writing a blog post about it is going to help the situation?

  4. I think that if my friend believes he was justified in blocking me, he won’t care whether or not I blog it.

  5. My comment has to do with MacDonald’s observation that the disciples who were once fishermen were helpless in the storm. Clearly he applies a different standard to them than he does to all other sailors who have gone down in storms throughout history. He also ignores the example of the ‘perfect storm’.

    He also seems to think that being a disciple means one has perfect vision in the most inhospitable conditions. This unrealistic portrayal only demonstrates that people do not look at the whole picture and make assumptions they should not make.

    The comment I just made can apply to your ‘friend’s’ actions. People are fallible, hypocritical, unfair, unjust and are subject to emotions and other influences. Why do you expect perfect behavior from those who are not perfect?

  6. How bad was this ‘perfect storm’? Jesus was happily sleeping through it.

  7. Simon Peter and John were both common ordinary fishermen. Likely illiterate fishermen. In fact, when Jesus approached Peter for the first time, he was at work fishing. So, it is hard to imagine they were both was able to read and write. Nonetheless read, write, and speak fluently in both Greek and Aramaic.

    So the idea that (Simon) Peter and John were both able to compose such a highly regarded and charismatic literary work with that level of Greek literary skill is highly improbable.

    “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men…” Acts 4:13. (Some versions say uneducated, unschooled, unlearned, common, and ordinary. It all means the same illiterate.)

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