The Transfiguration and the Inclusion of Moses

Ascension was nothing new in antiquity.  Richard Carrier jokingly noted that had there been television in antiquity, stories about people who ascend to heaven (or some variant of this) would have been more popular than crime dramas are today.  And, ironically, the New Testament doesn’t deny this.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.”  When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Matthew 17.1-8, posted above, is interesting for several reasons.  Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible will take note that Elijah had ascended to heaven in a whirlwind previously in 2 Kings 2.  But many probably don’t know about the tradition of the ascension of Moses.  This is probably due to the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, Moses does not ascend, but goes off to die alone (yet somehow there are those who believe he wrote the Torah–including the part about his death).  But there had been a tradition among some Jewish circles in antiquity, including those in the first century, who believed that Moses had ascended to heaven on a cloud.  Josephus recounts this tradition:

Now as soon as they came to the mountain called Abarim, he dismissed the senate; and as he was going to embrace Eleazar and Joshua, and was still discoursing with them, a cloud stood over him suddenly, and he disappeared in a certain valley, although he wrote in the holy books that he diedwhich was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God (Josephus, Antiquities 4.325-26).

And this is also recounted in the Talmud (Yoma 4a) and also in midrashic literature (Pesikta Rabbati 20:4).  And the apocryphal book–of which is given a terminus a quo of the first century CE–‘The Testament of Moses’ might have also contained an ascension narrative which is now lost from the sixth century Latin narrative.  So it is especially interesting that both Elijah (ascended to heaven) and Moses (ascended to heaven) appear in front of Jesus in the Gospel narratives, seemingly from heaven.  And then just as easily as they appear, they also vanish (presumably they ascended again, a foreshadowing event for what is to come at the end of the book): ‘When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.’.

The author of Luke certainly knew of the narrative and even seems to have interpreted this in the same way, as he has a cloud come down and envelope Elijah and Moses and then take them away (or, rather, they vanish; Lk 9.34).  The cloud is indicative of the legend of the ascension of Moses (and also of Enoch, as in 1 Enoch 39.3 when he is taken up on a cloud into the heaven; cf. Rev. 11.12) and also is for Jesus in Acts 1.9, when he ascends to heaven on a cloud, indicating that Luke might have used the ascension narrative of Moses (most likely taken from Josephus, since it appears likely that the author of Luke had copies of Josephus’ works) as a basis for his ascension narrative of Jesus.  But this is not the last we see of Moses and Elijah in Luke.  One has to wonder if Moses and Elijah are the two men in dazzling apparel who meet the women at the tomb in Lk 24.4.  It would make sense; after all, they were ascended at Jesus’ transfiguration as a foreshadowing and then return again to show that Jesus has done what they have done.

What makes this all so fascinating to me is that the ascension of Moses is not canonical, that is to say, it is not a part of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.  This ascension narrative is completely apocryphal according to modern religious doctrine.  But this just goes to show that the sectarianism in antiquity had no such doctrine of canonization.  Their understanding of scripture appears to be different than that of ours today and that inspiration is not defined by an ecumenical council but through the theological message of the text.  That this sort of noncanonical tradition can be found in the Gospels is intriguing.  One has to wonder what the implications for this are for the rest of the canon and what that might mean for inerrantists.

Defining Mythicism: The Signs Gospel and the Figure of Jesus

James McGrath highlights a post by the blog Synoptic Solutions on the Signs Gospel and the figure of Jesus.  I tend to think the post is a little ridiculous.  Here is the offending snippet:

In the Signs Gospel, Jesus is not being portrayed as a god on earth. Instead, he is portrayed as very human–a miraculous human, but a human nonetheless. Like the rabbis, he is not quite historical, yet he is not mythical, either. Instead, he is legendary. And so I propose that this is the correct model for understanding the historical Jesus. He is a legendary figure–but that does not mean he is an imaginary figure. Indeed, it means just the opposite: it means that he was most certainly historical.

There are several problems with this statement overall (e.g., the so-called Signs Gospel itself, the certainty of the claims being made about the Signs Gospel, portrayal of Jesus, the problems associated with Gos. of John, claims about the historicity of the figure of Jesus, and so on). First, and most importantly, the ‘Signs Gospel’ is hypothetical.  Like the sayings Gospel ‘Q’, the Signs Gospel is little more than a collected group of events (re: miraculous works) compiled by certain scholars (some who fall into line with confessional theology) as to seemingly avoid the problems associated with dependency (that is to say, that the Gospels are not independent traditions based upon eyewitness testimony); and we all know there are several very good (I would say ‘unassailable’) reasons to stop pretending ‘Q’ exists (ahem…).  For those unfamiliar with the Signs Gospel and the proposed value of the Gos. of John in historical Jesus studies, according to D. Moody Smith remarks (Johannine Christianity, p. 63):

“It is now rather widely agreed that the Fourth Evangelist drew upon a miracle tradition or written source(s) substantially independent of the synoptics, whether or not he had any knowledge of one or more of those gospels. Since the epoch-making commentary of Rudolf Bultmann, the hypothesis of a semeia– (or miracle) source has gained rather wide acceptance.”


“Whether such a miracle source can be precisely isolated and identified, as Bultmann and some who follow him think, is a question we need not decide here. The demonstration of the existence of a source (or sources) is not entirely dependent upon the possibility of isolating it with certainty and precision throughout the Gospel.”

The problem with D.M. Smith’s statement is that I am not so sure it is as ‘widely agreed’ that John used the Signs Gospel as he makes it appear (I will also not get into his other apologetic-esque comments here; Crossley does a good job of that in the article mentioned below).   I am not sure what is taking place with the John, Jesus, and History Project (JJH) via the SBL, but just judging from James Crossley’s paper (forthcoming in my volume with Thomas L. Thompson) it seems that suggesting that Jesus was a historical figure based upon this Gospel is a difficult task indeed (if not entirely futile, despite what the JJH project suggests).  One has to make gross presuppositions about the state of the evidence (i.e. you have to start from the conclusion that the Gospels present accurate representations of the historical Jesus first, which is a position that runs rather counter to historical-critical methods).   In addition, the Gos. of John might actually not have been composed until sometime in the early second century (but no later than the p52’s terminus ad quem, c. 150 CE), rather than at the turn of that century as it was once thought.

Though, even if it had been written earlier, like around the turn of the second century CE, it does not follow that one can judge the figure of Jesus, let alone propose a whole new model (!), based solely on a single narrative and hypothetical document.  It seems rather presumptuous, if not downright arrogant, to suggest firmly (and with such certainty!) that Jesus was indeed historical from the most miraculous, ludicrous, and late of the canonical Gospels.  And to top it off, the author begs us to presume the existence of a hypothetical document as secondary evidence for his position!

While it might be that the Gospels are legendary, mythologized narratives about a historical person, it is folly to ignore all existing narratives besides the Gos. of John whilst making the outrageous claim that Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized.  This is nothing more than begging the question: if all of these factors (Signs Gospel did exist as a source for John, John did have source material from an eyewitness, tradition stemmed from a historical core, John is the primary witness to historical tradition, etc…) are true, Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized (essentially amounting to nothing more than the Chewbacca Defense: “Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!”).  But as the song goes, “well, that’s a far cry from the truth.”  We can only say so much from the evidence.  And when one is proposing a hypothetical document, even one that is largely accepted, the proposal can only be hypothetical (as a conclusion can only be as strong as the evidence).  To a large extent, this does prove, quite directly, that there are instances of bias in historical Jesus scholarship and with the question over historical value of the canonical Gospels.

Although there is hardly much need for additional evidence; it is clear that historical Jesus scholarship has its own share of failings.  Crossley notes, for example (and do read the whole article):

[T]he study of the historical Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned with fact finding, description and descriptive interpretation in its various forms, with little concern for questions such as why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why this movement subsequently led to a new religion. By Eric Hobsbawm’s standards (see epigraph) most of these historical Jesus writers would come perilously close to being guilty of ‘antiquarian empiricism’ and more than one historical Jesus scholar might be guilty of writing what Hobsbawm dismissed as the ‘Victorian tome’ so typical of biography.

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous other problematic oversights in the post.  The author blogs the similarities of the miraculous signs from Greco-Jewish traditions but ignores those similar motifs found in the Hebrew Bible.  Where is the discussion or even mention of the same trope found in Ps. 107:23-30?

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

I would note as well that Ps. 107 contains other miraculous forms of redemption, through healing of the sick, and the feeding of the multitude (part of the ‘Signs’ which some believe came from this hypothetical source):

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

And of course, one cannot forget the play of the Elisha/Elijah narratives at work in the miracle scenes.  The calming of the storm also has roots in Elijah’s challenge to the Baal worshipers, where Yahweh is portrayed as a God who has control over the storms, in direct conflict with Baal, another storm God.  The feeding of the multitude motif can also be found in the Elisha/Elijah narratives (2 Kings 4:38-41 with Elisha’s magic flour, and with Elijah 1 Kings 17:8-16), as is the healing of the sick/resurrection of the dead miracle stories (i.e., 1 Kings 17:17-24 where Elijah raised the widow’s son and Elisha and the Shunamite woman’s son in 2 Kings 4:18-37).  These miracle stories need not come from another hypothetical source (as fictional as it might indeed be), but from long-held tropes and motifs found in ancient Jewish literature.  John’s ability to take Mark’s Gospel and build upon it is not unknown.

On the subject of absorbing Mark wholly, the author also uses a bit of hyperbole when he states “since we know the Markan author used SG as a source.”  In fact, since these miracles are found in the Hebrew Bible, Mark’s source is probably also the scriptures.  There is no need to fabricate an entirely hypothetical Gospel just to account for the motifs.  And John need only have a copy of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to build upon the scenes (which many believe he did).  The best example for this is the scene at the tomb of Jesus.  Richard Carrier explains it (go to the link for a footnoted version):

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive. It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it. But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself. As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.

I had thought we were moving away from such cut-and-paste mentalities in scholarship; how is the Signs Gospel that much different than Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament?  Sure, we can make Jesus anything we want just by trimming out the miraculous bits and combining all the instances where a particular motif or trope holds sway, calling it the hypothetical ‘Whatever Gospel’, and get people to sign off on the idea.  The problem with this is quite simple: it removes context and as I have shown it allows for the collector of these verses, the redactor of this new hypothetical text, to ignore very important subcontexts, narrative functions, and intertextuality in the original text.

Noah and the Flood: The Historical Impossibility

Noah’s Ark/Flood Story:

Recently there has been an aggressive push by the media to include stories in their coverage about the flood and the Ark.  Here are a few stories from the past few months:

None of this is new.  A Google News search indicates that people have been searching for Noah’s Ark since as early as the 1940’s.

Every attempt has led to failure or abuse of information.  Why?  Because the Ark is not on Ararat.  It’s not anywhere.  It never was.  The story of the Ark is a theological story.  It is not a history account.  Let’s break the narrative down into increments:

1. Men were mating with giants (yes, giants lived on earth, according to Gen.  6)

2. ‘Sons of God'(?) ( בְנֵי־ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) took human women as their wives (‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose’ – this line looks remarkably Greek to me, as if this were from Homer about the sons of Zeus) and bore mixed offspring.

3. Angry at this, God wishes to ‘undo’ humanity, but decides in his mercy to save a remnant through Noah who was upright and perfect in his eyes.  So God commands Noah to build an Ark for his family and seven pairs of every clean creature and one pair of every unclean creature on earth.

4.  Noah does this.  God floods the world.

5. God makes the water recede.  Commands Noah to leave the ship, which he does.

6. Noah builds an alter to God and makes a burnt offering of some of the animals he just saved from being swept under in the flood.

7. God feels bad and says, after smelling the pleasant aroma of the animal sacrifice, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’

8. Noah decides to build a vineyard and become a drunkard.

Now, just from this summary, where in it can we find history?  The part about the giants?  Do we find it in the demi-God offspring between the sons of God and the daughters of men?  In the flooding of the world?  That Noah rounded up every creature, across continents, and stuffed them in his ship?  No, none of this story is historical.  Then why would someone believe the flood narrative is historical?  As Bob Cargill aptly points out (and please read the whole article, it is very good):

The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 is not historical, but rather a combination of at least two flood stories, both of which descended from earlier Mesopotamian flood narratives. Note that this does not mean all of the claims made in the Bible are false (or true for that matter); I am dealing here only with the biblical stories of the flood. (Also understand that the “slippery slope” claim of “all of the Bible is true or none of it is true” is simply an unnecessary rhetorical device designed to keep readers from doing precisely what scholars do every day: analyze each claim in the Bible on a case-by-case basis. It is not necessary to accept an “all or none” stance towards the Bible.)

Most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars argue that the flood is a mythical story adopted from earlier Mesopotamian flood accounts. These earlier accounts include the 17th century BCE Sumerian flood myth Eridu Genesis, the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic,and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which are some of the earliest known examples of a literary style of writing. The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh known today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE). This extant Akkadian version is derived from earlier Sumerian versions. In the story, Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man-beast named Enkidu, travel the world on a number of quests that ultimately displease the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life by visiting the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the god Ea (equivalent to the Sumerian god Enki) revealed the gods’ plan to destroy all life with a great flood, and how they instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, friends, and livestock. After the flood, the gods repented for destroying the world and made Utnapishtim immortal.

But it might also have roots in an Egyptian narrative known as Legend of the Destruction of Mankind, where Râ sends Hathor out to destroy mankind for blaspheming him.  When Râ sees what he has done he seeks a way to cease the massacre:

But having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not
be appeased. For three nights the goddess Hathor-
Sekhmet waded about in the blood of men, the
slaughter beginning at Hensu (Herakleopolis
Magna). Ra now realized that Hathor-Sekhmet
would destroy the human race completely. Angry
as he was, he wished to rule mankind, not see it
destroyed. There was only one way to stop
Hathor-Sekhmet — he had to trick her.

He ordered his attendants to brew seven thousand
jars of beer, and to color it red using both the
mandrakes and the blood of those who had been

After he has tricked Hathor into a drunken stupor and the massacre stops, Ra remarks:

Now, although the blasphemers of Ra had
been put to death, the heart of the god still was
not satisfied. The next morning he confessed to
Hathor his true feelings: “I am smitten with the
pain of the fire of sickness. Why did I have such
pain? I live, but my heart has become exceedingly
weary because I still have to live with those men.
I have slain some of them, but worthless men still
live, and I did not slay as many as I ought to have
done, considering my power.”

Then the gods who were in his following said
to him, “Don’t worry about your lack of action, for
your power is in proportion to your will.”

Ra, the Majesty, said unto the Majesty of Nut,
“My members are as weak as they were at the
first time. I will not permit this to come upon me
a second time.”

What makes this narrative so interesting compared with that the of the Akkadian, Sumerian, and Jewish flood narratives?  The simple answer has nothing at all to do with the historicity of the events; the answer is plain, that is to say, it has to do with the theological message, God’s mercifulness.  Some will of course quibble with the value of mercy when multitudes of creatures and people are killed in brutal ways, but the story held a certain place in the ancient mythic mind.

Taking the additional content surrounding the flood narrative out of the story of Gen. 6-9 not only fractures the narrative and removes context, the emulative quality of the narrative, and its theological purpose, but it ignores the rich literary tradition from which the narrative derives.   Pseudo-archaeological attempts to illustrate the historicity of the flood also ignores volumes of scientific and mathematical data which not only suggests its impossibility as a historical event, but demonstrates the ignorance of the narrative by those wishing to impose their modern bias anachronistically onto ancient literature.  The value of these stories rest in their theological meaning, which would have held a much more valid function for ancient readers of these texts.

Some Additional Reading Information:

T.L.Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (JSOTSuppS 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), pp. 74-83.
T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 75-93
P.R. Davies, The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (JSOTSuppS 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), pp. 24-44
P.R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 27-35

‘Monotheism’ in 1 Corinthians 8:6

James asks this question on his blog:

What do you think Paul meant in this passage? Was Paul a monotheist in exactly the same sense as his other Jewish contemporaries? Please answer in the comments here, or on your own blog!

via Paul’s Expanded Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:6 | Exploring Our Matrix.

I would like to open the discussion with a reminder from Philip Davies which I have given in the past about such subjects:

Many scholarly books mention the “religion” of “Israel” as “Yahwism.” As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a “religion of Yahweh”? There was no “Baalism” “Mardukism,” or “Elism.” Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word “religion” to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their “religion” was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one “religion.”

But the real concern here is how we can make this determination from written sources; was Josephus a ‘monotheist?’  What about Philo?  Were the Gospel authors?  In a world where ancient Jewish synagogues had images of Orpheus, where cultural diversity was as dynamic as it is today, where even ancient historians  and theologians had trouble defining piety, and where social memory was not defined by a ‘history’ of facts but a ‘history’ of mythic tropes, can any determination be made of ‘Pauline theistic thought?’

Let me elaborate.  In intertextual studies, we must ask, in the vein of Roland Barthes, is what we are reading double-voiced?  By ‘double-voiced’ dialogue I refer here to a dialogue which contains, sometimes unbeknownst to the author, a trace of the words of someone else, which retain their own meaning.  And by ‘someone else’ I don’t necessarily mean that the individual in dialogue took the words (as if to steal them) from another, but that through the process of education or assimilation, in a cultural standpoint, the person speaks outside of themselves.  Josephus, for example, writes in a double-voice.  He speaks from a position of being a Jew but also from being assimilated into wealth and prosperity in the Roman elite class.  His words echo the values of both cultures, but at times he speaks from a position of one more than another, or in a manner that does not represent what he portrays himself to be–whether he portrays himself as a pious Jew, for example, comes into question when one sees him writing in ways that subvert his heritage with a Roman or Greek one.

In Paul, we see this as well.  There are clear signs of his Greek education in his writing; his rhetoric, his philosophic understanding, the subtle concepts of Plato’s cave in his use of the language of a mystery religion (“the mature”, “awake/asleep” terminology, initiations, and so forth).  But at times we see direct “Jewish language” (that is, language closely worded to imitate the scriptures he is interpreting) intermixed in his Greek.  We see similar instances in  II Maccabees, which Erich Gruen points out, where the author is directly opposed to the Greeks, yet writes to his audience in Greek and expects his readers (which we assume to be Jewish) are able to understand Greek.

In 1 Cor 8.6, we come to another instance, in my opinion, of such a double-voiced dialogue.  But it must be seen in the context of what surrounds the passage (1 Cor 8:4-11):

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”  For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.  But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.  Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?  So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

Paul speaks rhetorically and does so for a reason.  He is not saying, “there are no other beings who reside in Heaven”–in fact, quite the contrary, he says that there are beings (and he refers to them often as ‘powers’ [as in Gal 4.3: stoixei=a tou= ko/smou]  or ‘rulers’ [as in Rom 8.38: pe/peismai ga_r o3tiou1te a!ggeloi ou1te a)rxaiou1te duna&meij] of the cosmos).  And he doesn’t even say “don’t participate in the offerings”, but instead issues a warning (paraphrased):  “If you do this, be careful that someone without as much knowledge (more of that mystery-religion language) in Christ (probably referring to a level of initiation–someone who is not yet ‘fully mature’ [as in 1 Cor 2.6-8: te/leioi] or able to understand) as you have might fall prey to the thinking that you are following these idols as Gods.”

The double-voice here is the valuing of a single God in the mix of many, wherein Paul’s “Jewishness” is coming through his rather Greek mystery language.  The danger in assuming monotheism here is it devalues this double-voice and in essence builds a fictional concept of cultural conflict.  We all might hate The Jersey Shore television show, find them all quite annoying, but that doesn’t stop us from dressing up our kids like the cast and tuning in to watch it.  Social conflict exists certainly (well, there was a war after all), but to the extent that there was some sort of “Greek/Roman” vs. “Jew” mentality during this period, at least across the board, makes little sense.  And whatever that conflict was, it did not stop Paul from writing, even while he was in custody (assuming that he was actually imprisoned and killed by the Romans–it might just be tradition after all)!

So is Paul monotheistic?  Certainly he is, but certainly he is not.  The answer, from an ancient socio-cultural perspective, isn’t as simple as ‘yes’ and ‘no’; anachronistically, the answer is a definite ‘no’.  But in an ancient context, with the recognition of the play of the mythic mind?  The answer is going to be a cloudy one, at best.

Jesus the Buddhist?

This idea is not new.  Certain Buddhists and Christians have held to conclusions that the two are interrelated in many ways, so much so there is an academic journal dedicated to Buddhist-Christian Studies.  There is even a wiki page, where it offers some early Christian evidence of an awareness of Buddhism.   And the BBC had a program about Jesus being a Buddhist monk:

So this subject is really quite popular, even among some scholars.  Dwight Goddard, for example, published a comparative analysis on the similarities between Jesus and Buddha in 1927.  A recent article on the Huffington Post has brought attention to this concept and its recent genre move from fringe scholarship to fiction and, along with it, a lot of problems for historians.  First among them is the parallelism that one finds in ‘movies’ like Zeitgeist and pseudo-scholarship which readers of my blog have long since known I cannot stand (and dedicate a whole page to this nonsense).

Jeffrey Small (who should know better with that MA in the Study of Religions he has) has written a novel integrating the parallels between Jesus and Buddha and claims, “Although the book is fiction, the research behind it is historical…”.  I’m sorry to say it isn’t. Even in the first paragraph where the author is giving a quiz about Buddha he gets things wrong.  Of Buddha (in his attempt to stretch the narrative of Buddha’s life over to Jesus) he writes:

A shimmering spirit appears to a young wife in a dream, tells her that she will give birth to a son who will change the world and then enters her womb.

But this isn’t correct.  There are different traditions about the narrative and that ‘shimmering spirit’ in a dream is a the Bodhisattva who, on an elephant, enters the side of Buddha’s mother.  There is no discussion of foreknowledge of the greatness of her child, like in the Gospel accounts.   The elephant is symbolic and was probably interpreted as a holy message, but Small is quite wrong to give the false impression that something ‘appeared’ and ‘told’ Maya anything of the sort.

His next failed attempt at creating a faux-link between Jesus and Buddha is also based on a loose parallel between one of Buddha’s teachings and one of Jesus’ teachings, of which, in dilettante fashion, he completely misses the point:

Digging deeper into ancient India, we can also uncover Hindu scripture (a group of writings known as the Vedas), which contain parables that sound eerily like those told by Jesus centuries later. For example, in one oft-recited parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. Similarly, in the Chandogya Upanishad, this ancient Sanskrit text tells of the master who asks his student to open the Banyan tree fruit, extract the tiny seed and then break it in half, revealing a hollow center. When the student notices that the seed is empty, his teacher replies that from that emptiness comes the great Banyan tree, and, he continues, that same creative essence is in the student, too.

This seems to have been a superficial match based only on the word ‘seed’. If this is the link that Small is trying to make, he might be surprised to find that seeds and crops are useful metaphoric language throughout the ancient Near East, dating back to the Sumerians.  So this language is not useful in establishing a dependent tradition.  And Jesus’ mustard seed parable has a completely different meaning than that of the Sanskrit text.  Jesus is speaking of signs of the coming Kingdom; he uses the mustard seed as an expression of faith–that is to say, he is not using it as an expression of self-worth, which the hallowed fruit seems to represent in the narrative in the Chandogya Upanishad.

But there are more reasons not to trust these forced parallels.  The mustard seed parable is part of a triadic pattern of parable giving in Mark (spec. Mk 4:31-32 for the mustard seed), which means that it is formulated off an understanding of the other parables in the set which also involve the Kingdom and crops/seeds metaphoric language, but also the two other parable sets before and after the parables of the Kingdom (all of which deal specifically with faith; the calming of the sea, the feeding of the multitudes, etc…).  And there is no need to look outside the Jewish scriptures for intertextual relevance.  The underlying metaphor of Jesus’ generation or, rather, the generation of Isaiah and their ignorance towards the enlightenment that is right in front of them, as well as Jesus’ reluctance to explain things to them, has strong ties to the same tropes found in the Hebrew Bible, in the prophets (Is. 6:9-10; cf. T.L. Thompson, Messiah Myth [New York: Basic Books, 2005] 67-71).

Finally, there is no need to fabricate nonexistent links between two different world philosophies which both happened to preach wisdom and enlightenment and goodwill towards man; there were plenty of those already extant at the time of the first century CE.  Aside from all of the Greek and Roman mystery schools we know about (and perhaps the dozens–if not more–of other schools of which we know nothing), there were also Jewish mystics and mystery schools we have evidence of, who taught similar virtues and of the wisdom of enlightenment.  In fact that is a whole text about the esoteric nature of the world, the way to enlightenment, and how the cosmic world aligns with it all (Eugostos the Blessed, which predates Christianity); it had such a similar message to that of some early Christians that a clever educated Christian wrote a new version (the Pistis Sophia, also known as the Sophia of Jesus Christ) to assimilate those meanings with those of his sect.   So there is simply no reason to assume that these similarities stem from a Buddhist philosophy at all and any case that might be made for a dependency must also exclude these other, more probably intertextual links.

Then Small asks a question which assumes the absurd:

Why do we see these parallels between the religions of the East and the teachings of Jesus, who was considered a subversive in his Roman and Jewish community? Why do the contemplative practices of Jesus, which seem to confuse his disciples, seem so similar to Eastern meditative techniques?

The answer isn’t, as Small would like you to believe, because “Jesus studied at a Buddhist monastery” and it isn’t because “Buddhism influenced Christianity”.  And creating fictional links between the two will not make the case.  In fact, to prove such links requires a more strict methodology than ‘A(a) is similar to A(b), ergo A(a) = A(b)’ or ‘ergo A(a) influenced A(b)’.  For example, just because early church fathers in the second and third centuries  (around the time the biographies of Buddha were written and distributed, I might add) knew of some basic principles of Buddha’s life does not mean they (or especially the Gospel authors) could read Sanskrit, which would be required if they were to base the narratives they wrote of Jesus on the stories of Buddha.  This would have to be proven, or at least argued convincingly enough to suggest the possibility/probability of this.  Since there is absolutely no evidence they had the ability to read Sanskrit, it would be quite an undertaking to make the case and I doubt a suspense novel could accomplish this task.  Not to mention the availability of these narratives.  How common were Sanskrit texts found in the Near East in antiquity?  Who would have owned them? Would they be accessible to anyone? These questions would have to be addressed.  Would the Gospel authors have had access?  Paul?  The early church fathers?

Jesus as Orpheus (Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, 4th Century CE)

It is easy to make all sorts of claims about the past, especially when you aren’t challenged to present an actual argument for them.  Small does a great job in his article throwing together all sorts of seemingly possible connections between Buddhism and Christianity; maybe there are some connections but is it possible that one influenced the other?  I doubt it.  The developmental influence in the creation of the Gospel narratives stems most probably from what the authors had and the tradition in which they were educated (Classical/Roman education with some Torah training).  Meaning that the probability that they had any access to Buddhism is nearly nonexistent.  These sorts of claims resemble those found in the pseudo-scholarship of Zeitgeist Mythicists and Dorothy Murdock.  She has already made similar claims, and they fail just as easily as Small’s claims here.

So let this be a warning; be on the lookout for these sorts of stories.

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.

Scripture Citing Scripture: Intertextuality

James McGrath remarks on a mythicist position today on his blog:

The other problematic criterion claims that, if something in the New Testament resembles some detail in Scripture, that is reason to believe that the story was fabricated on the basis of that Scripture.

But James is perhaps unfamiliar with the fact that, as I have said again and again, this is a mainstream academic position.  This has nothing at all to do with mythicists; it just seems that some mythicists are actually up to date on more recent trends in mainstream scholarship.  The idea of intertextuality (which perhaps James just refuses to look into?) has been around since Julia Kristeva coined the term following her time in Tel Quel and the discussions ongoing between the poststructuralists and (neo)structuralists in the 1970’s.  The concept behind intertextuality, however, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure and his Course in General Linguistics (1916).

I am continually amazed that scholars are seemingly clueless about this, since monographs and edited volumes concerning methods and studies of intertextuality in New Testament have been published for decades.  I am even told (al la Steph Fisher) that in Europe, intertextuality is part of the NT curriculum.  I imagine that it is also a part of OT Theology courses in Europe as well (since every scholar I talk to from Sheffield and Copenhagen–or who might have studied under a scholar from these Universities–knows about it and incorporates it in some of their works).  Among those many studies, Dennis R. MacDonald and Thomas L. Brodie were crucial in introducing this into mainstream academia some time ago, and they weren’t alone (links will bring you to various monographs and studies on the subject; obviously this isn’t comprehensive). And the concept has been in the field of Classics for longer than that.

James might have some quarrels with certain arguments for intertextuality with a certain part of the text (e.g., he might have a problem with my comparison between 1 Sam and 2 Cor and Acts) but he will have to demonstrate that via an actual argument rather than claiming the whole concept of intertextuality is bunk which seems to be his position here.   Intertextuality has become the prime consideration in almost every modern exegetical work by scholars.  It shocks me that he’d make this sort of claim; some might wonder if James might need to expand his reading list when he finds the time.

Narrative Function in Luke-Acts: Did Luke Have a Historical Source?

James McGrath had an interesting discussion on Paul and mythicism on his blog a few weeks back (alas, I am far behind on my blogging! Still working on a syllogism post which is nearly complete!); while I am still in the process of working on my next installment of ‘Defining Mythicism’ and the ongoing discussion with historical Jesus scholars on the subject, James makes some very important points in his post which I have raised myself:

Acts has to be used with caution, and we cannot assume that Acts always views Paul in the same way that Paul viewed himself, nor had the same theological stance as Paul, never mind the question of whether the information in Acts is historically reliable in various places.

This criticism is important; it is important because it expresses the conflict the reader had when they read Paul and then read about how the author of Acts portrays Paul.  Joe Tyson remarks on this:

Contrariwise, the speeches of Paul, with one exception, do not sound like the Paul of the letters.  The one exception is in Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch,…. Here the Paul of Acts sounds like the author of Romans and Galatians.  Elsewhere in Acts, however, the themes of the Lukan Paul are fundamentally Jewish, more specifically Pharisaic.  The Lukan Paul stresses monotheism, creation, and resurrection.  Most importantly, there is a great deal of stress on his observance of Torah (Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle [Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 2006], p. 3-4).

The implications for this are quite clear.  Luke portrays Paul differently, for reasons other than to express historical reliability.  His desires are, in effect, to craft a Paul more in line with how he views the Jewish Christian sects (perhaps those led by the Jerusalem pillars, either in the image of Peter or, more probably, in an image he presumes to akin to how he believes Peter would have been).  But then he makes the following claim and I am not so sure, in what capacity, he feels it is a solid one and I am hoping that by addressing it he will make his point more clear:

But that having been said, the evidence of Acts is very important for discussion with Jesus-mythicism, because it is the second volume of a two-volume work that also includes a story of Jesus. And so unless we want to argue that Luke was right about the historicity of major characters in his second volume, but completely wrong about the historicity of the main character in his first volume, then Luke-Acts provides yet another bit of evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

If we’re honest, if we only had Luke’s account of Paul being lowered over a city wall to safety, we’d treat it as a fantastic bit of hagiographical fiction. But Paul himself confirms that such an event happened (2 Corinthians 11:33), while providing enough different details so as to make it unlikely that Luke is simply deriving information from Paul’s letters. And so Luke can be shown to preserve a grain of historical reminiscence even in a story about which we’d naturally be skeptical (emphasis added- ed).

What More Could I Have Said About Paul? The New Perspective, Acts, and Mythicism.

What makes this statement so curious is that it does not make formulaic (logical) sense.  If you might have missed it, here is the summarized claim James is making above:  Since Luke has more details about Paul than Paul provides himself, that is evidence (“shown to preserve”) of a historical source or tradition to which Luke had access.

I don’t think this follows at all and I’m not sure that James really thought that claim through when he made it, or else he might have stayed a hand before typing it, to be sure.  First, while it might very well be true that Luke had another source, to claim that Luke’s source preserved a historical tradition or historical kernel is a little disingenuous since we just do not have that information.  We simply don’t have Luke’s sources about the figure of Paul at all, save for Paul’s letters, so it is impossible to know if he is drawing from a historical tradition or a fictional one upon which he is elaborating.  As even James will admit we don’t have all the textual sources (in fact, we know just from mentions in the secondary accounts we do have, we are missing a great deal of literature–Gospels, letters, treatises, etc…we even know of many no-longer-extant texts by name), so I am not sure why James feels the need to obscure the truth of this issue by suggesting that there is a historical core to this narrative.

What makes James’ point less logically sound, and which is perhaps more damaging to his statement, is that there are many instances where Luke takes a short theological statement in Paul or a short story where there are practically no details and elaborates upon them–not from historical source material, but from earlier literature.  Take Paul’s conversion narrative(s) in Acts (all three of them: Acts 9, 22, & 26).

I would argue that Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 is an emulation of Heliodorus’ conversion in 2 Maccabees 3.  The topoi of the narratives are in the same order and reflect the same sort of conversion (i.e. divine intervention): (1) In both stories, a nonbeliever (non-Jew, non-Christian) are on their way to persecute the righteous (loot the temple, persecute Christians), (2) the two nonbelievers are knocked down and their companions struck with dread, (3) both suffer at the hand of the lord, (4) and their recovery is only given to them by trusting faithful servants of the lord.  This emulation is upheld by a number of scholars, though I find N. T. Wright’s claim (The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003], 188-193) that Luke believed this act to be a historical event—while Wright himself argues for the allusion—to be a little disingenuous.

It seems James might be taking a stance akin to H.J. Cadbury (i.e. that the author/redactor of Acts had the use of source material), but even Cadbury exhibited caution in his analysis, suggesting rightly that in the end, the author had full control over the rhetoric of the text and its uses.  But the emulation of motifs, archetypes, and figures found in earlier literature in order to supplement narrative details is not new (see notes below), but has been tackled more recently (see I. Hjelm’s treatment ‘”Who Is My Neighbor?” Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel’ in my forthcoming volume with Thompson) and the evidence is quite strong (T. Penner argues this persuasively).  His motives for creating these scenarios from OT literature (rather than, say, from historical sources) are also quite well-known; first proposed by R. Karris but also echoed in C.K. Barrett.  C.H. Talbert, R.I. Pervo, and Joe Tyson (cf. the Acts Seminar) have taken up the challenge to offer more relative, recent studies on the subjects as well.

So is it really ‘a grain of historical reminiscence’, as James suggests, or simply Luke engaging with Paul’s letters?  In that event, what reason would he have to include it in the narrative?  And what was Paul’s purpose of expressing this story?  Did he have a reason behind it or was he simply recounting an actual event for no reason?  And if there was a reason, was it relevant to his theological message in the rest of the text?  In order to make any determination about the value of the textual narrative, we need to ask more questions which raise or lower the probable expectation that this event was, in fact, based on a ‘historical reminiscence’ instead of being a emulative theological fiction passed from Paul to the author/redactor of Acts.

Paul writes, for example, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.  The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.” (2 Cor 11:30-33)

But Luke has a different story: “When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” (Acts 9:23-25)

And one cannot help but wonder why Paul would include this?  Is he trying to show cowardice or something else?  Is he showing that it is acceptable to be meek, to be human?  This part of the letter doesn’t fit with his normal style; very little does Paul say about his ministry in his letters.  And, to top it off, I am always hesitant when reading the letters of Paul, upon coming to a verse which reads “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus…knows that I am not lying.”  My thoughts always turn to a child saying, “Honest mom, I didn’t take that cookie from the counter!  Scouts honor!”  It’s just hard to believe.  But if it were for that alone, then maybe James would have a point.  But Paul often alludes to emulations when he makes these sorts of statements–God knows Paul isn’t lying because Paul is drawing from scripture:

From 1 Sam. 19:9-12, “But an evil spirit from the LORD came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape. Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped.”

Interesting that the scenarios in 2 Cor., Acts, and 1 Sam. have the same thematic elements, the same sorts of language…

λαβόντες δὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς διὰ τοῦ τείχους καθῆκαν αὐτὸν χαλάσαντες ἐν σπυρίδι

and the disciples having taken him, by night did let him down by the wall, letting down in a basket.

καὶ διὰ θυρίδος ἐν σαργάνῃ ἐχαλάσθην διὰ τοῦ τείχους καὶ ἐξέφυγον τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ

and through a window in a rope basket I was let down, through the wall, and fled out of his hands.

καὶ κατάγει ἡ μελχολ τὸν δαυιδ διὰ τῆς θυρίδος καὶ ἀπῆλθεν καὶ ἔφυγεν καὶ σῴζεται

And Michal causeth David to go down through the window, and he goeth on, and fleeth, and escapeth;

If we were to say that Luke had a source, it must have been the letters of Paul and 1 Sam.  To make the claim that Luke had another source is speculative at best and would require a much more complicated and undoubtedly convoluted explanation.  Indeed, this motif goes back to Joshua 2:15, when Rahab hid spies sent by Joshua: “Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall.”  None of these topoi are new.

Creating Biblical Figures – Thomas L. Thompson

This is an old article from Thomas, but quite interesting and worth the read.  Here is a snippet:

Job, in his utopian, king-like role in Job 29, provides me with a useful paradigm for the biblical figure of the messiah (Th.L. Thompson and H.Tronier, Frelsens Biografisering, Museum Tusculanum: Copenhagne, 2004, 115-134) and an internal coherence to my new book, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (Basic Books: New York, 2005), which provides the theme of a seminar this coming semester. The Messiah Myth takes up issues often ignored or lost sight of when biblical narrative is overshadowed by modern questions about the historical origins of Judaism and Christianity. It addresses what origin stories tell us through their stories of beginnings and who the figures of David and Jesus are if they are not to express the founding of Israel’s kingship and Christianity’s origins?

via Creating Biblical Figures – By Thomas L. Thompson.

Historicized Scripture: A Response to James McGrath on Neil Godfrey

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Exploring Our Matrix: Godfrey’s Razor and Historicized Scripture.

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’.

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