Lester L. Grabbe Responds to Richard Carrier

Some of you may have read Richard Carrier’s review of the forthcoming collection of essays edited by Thomas L. Thompson and I.  The one paper in the volume he didn’t like he reviewed negatively; that paper belongs to Lester Grabbe.  He has asked me to reblog a comment he left on Carrier’s review.  I will post it here in length.  Here you go Lester:  

Since Dr Carrier has given a completely misleading impression of my article, I thought I might make a few brief points:

1.  Thank you for the reference to Van Voorst.  It was, unfortunately, unavailable when I did my research for the article.  However, my practice is to go to primary sources as the basis of any research.  It is also important to take account of secondary sources, but if you work from the primary sources, it is not usually a disaster if you overlook a secondary source.

2.  “Uncritical” is the typical sophomoric response of one who cannot refute the arguments of another.  Of course, there are many uncritical studies in the scholarly literature–as I have often pointed out–but my article is not one of them.  On the contrary, I critically analyzed every source and came to a considered judgment about its historical value for the question.  You might disagree with my conclusions, but it is not because I was uncritical.

3.  Your attempt to show I made an ignorant mistake about Pilate is cheap and disingenuous, as a full quotation of the passage quickly shows:

Thus, it seems likely that Tacitus’ source is Roman.  Tacitus is the only Roman writer >to mention Pilate (though we have confirmation of his existence from an inscription).  >If Pilate had reported to the Senate on the matter, this would likely have been available >in the senatorial archives.    [Is This Not the Carpenter?, p. 59]

My argument was about Tacitus, not Pilate.  As for the alleged lack of knowledge about the facts, I examined and discussed all or almost all the primary references to Pilate and also listed the main recent secondary sources already 20 years ago in my Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian (1992), pp. 395-97, 422-25.

4.  No, I didn’t take account of your article, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josepehus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200”, since it has not yet been published.  I’m afraid I’m not prescient.

5.  I think it highly unlikely that Josephus used Luke, and I think that few scholars of either Luke or Josephus would accept that proposition.  (I also doubt that Luke used Josephus, though that is a possibility.)

6.  Even though you assure everyone that I am mistaken, on not less than two occasions, you also urge your audience not to read my article.  Yet you devote about 25 percent of your entire review of the book just to my contribution.  I am left with the distinct impression that you are afraid for people to read it.

In conclusion, critical scholars will disagree with one another, which is fine–that’s part of scholarship.  But they should present evidence and careful argument for their positions:  chest-thumping and penis-waving will not substitute.

Lester Grabbe

I have asked Richard Carrier to comment here as well.  See comments below.

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Undisputed! Ignatius, Skepticism, and the Problem of Ignorance

The title may be a little confusing; what do any of those things have to do with each other?  Well, as it turns out, this post is a bit of a critique of the ‘criterion of disputation.’  This criterion goes that if a particular person, place, or event in antiquity wasn’t contested (that is to say, their existence or their happening wasn’t called into question) by other contemporaries, that the person, place, or event must have been historical.  If we broke the argument down into a syllogism, it would look like this:

 P1. If (insert name here) did not exist, a first century text would mention it.

 P2. No first century text mentions it.

 C1. Therefore (person) existed [i.e. (individual/group) did not not exist].

But this is just not a sound argument, nor is it helpful.  For starters, this criterion uses too many generalizations–it’s a special plea because it fails to prove accurate in many, if not most, of the cases one would think to use it.  For example, Romulus.

At some point in early Rome (we don’t know when precisely) there grew a belief in a demi-god, a patriarch, of the city of Rome.  Was it within the first 50 years?  The first 100 years?  Maybe later?  We are pretty sure that Rome became a Republic sometime in the 6th century BCE, and that it is traditionally said to have been ruled by several kings prior to it becoming a republic and that it was founded perhaps 200 years earlier.  The first mention of Romulus is in the 4th century BCE and our earliest history of Rome comes from Diocles around the same time.  So there is some length of time between when the city was first established and when the patriarch was given to myth. I’ve dealt with the problem of proximity before, but clearly I need to readdress it at some point in light of some additional considerations, but more on that soon.  What should be remembered here is that nobody doubted the historicity of Romulus; his existence went undisputed.  Interestingly enough, not only did his existence go undisputed, some of his miraculous deeds did get disputed.  For example, Plutarch disputed whether or not he had really risen from the dead–but his existence was never disputed.

Likewise, and I’ve written on this before, Palaephatus wrote in his introduction to his work Πeρὶ ἀpίstων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists a great deal of “true stories” behind the myths.   In his work, he writes that Centaurs were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!

And then, of course, there is Euhemerus himself (from whom the word ‘euhemerism’ derives).  Euhemerus argued that the gods of the Greeks were mythologized historical Kings.  Again, the gods were not disputed to have existed, but their mythology stripped and they were placed within the context of a historical setting.

But we should bring this back home a little bit; we should consider Ignatius as a model here.  Ignatius supposedly wrote several letters defending Christianity in his lifetime and is attested to have lived from about the early-mid first century to the early second century CE.  Later Christian historians write on him and tell us about his life, more about his martyrdom.  No one in antiquity doubts his historicity.  But I am doubtful that such a figure as Ignatius existed historically (I’d say there is about a 30-40% chance that such a figure existed–and that is being generous).  In fact, I don’t believe there is any way such a figure, if he did exist, wrote anything (or, if such a figure did write something, then it might be argued but at a later date).  Let me break this down for you so you can better understand what I’m arguing here.

When I say I am 30-40% sure of Ignatius’ historicity, for example, I’m not denying his existence outright.  I must stress that; I’m not denying his historicity completely.  I’m stating that the limitations of our evidence doesn’t ipso facto suggest Ignatius didn’t exist, but they certainly don’t help or support the case for his existence.  For example, are we really to accept that Ignatius was captured by Romans in the second century for practicing a ‘false religion’, only to be supplied by those same Romans with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about his same forbidden religion?  And are we then to assume that his letters were kept or sent out by these same Romans (which Ignatius considers rather mean-spirited and cruel to him)?  Are we to believe he had other ‘illegal Christian’ visitors, let in by the Roman guards (the same guards holding him for being a Christian), to secure these letters before he was eaten by lions?  Keep in mind, he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!  I just don’t buy it.  Maybe you do.  I do not.

And then there is that whole pesky thing about Christians being persecuted in the early second century.  Pliny didn’t even know what a Christian was and he should!  He held enough high positions and judicial positions that if there were some edict against Christianity he would know about it!  And yet the way Ignatius discusses his captivity, one would think that the Romans were just hunting Christians down. This calls into question not only the authenticity of the letters, but also the person.  For what more do we know of him except from later Christian tradition?  Of that later tradition, it is no more valid or useful than the letters themselves.  So I don’t think my estimation of about 30-40% is too low or too skeptical.  In fact I’m probably being more generous than I should given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.

But I could make an even stronger case that the historical validity of things were simply not questioned in antiquity.  And examples are readily found in the New Testament itself.  All of the pastorals are written in the names of people which may or may not have any historical significance.  That is to say, was Nicodemus a historical figure?  And what of Simon Magus in Acts?  Certainly some must doubt the historicity of these individuals.  But who contested them?  Who in antiquity wrote on the ahistoricity of Nicodemus or Simon Magus?  Indeed, their traditions were merely exemplified.  Many of these traditions were created within a generation of the events, some contemporaries probably still lived to dispute them if they wanted to do so.  Yet we have no evidence that anyone sought to dispute them.

Now, keeping in mind that we have letters attested to have been written by Ignatius, my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.  In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones.  I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people.  But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.  Maybe that will change when better evidence presents itself.  I’m leaving room for such possibilities.  But I’m not straight out denying the traditions.  And that is the difference here between my skepticism and someone who is a denialist.  And I would put a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp.

Now, most academics are skeptical to some degree.  Skepticism is healthy and useful.  But what this shows is that there is a danger in not being skeptical enough.  That doesn’t mean to suggest that we need to be hyper skeptical where our doubt borders on denialism–that is not what I’m suggesting, and there is a clear difference between that sort of skepticism and what I recommend.  My concern is that there are too many arguments made without consideration for the elephant in the room; too many scholars who are not following through with their own conclusions.  And I believe it is a general fear of becoming too skeptical; too sensitive to the limitations of our evidence.  My concern is that the limitations of our textual evidence is taken for granted–and some may say it isn’t, because they’re using evidence and argument.  But if our text is our evidence, and the text is subject to fictionalization, almost completely in the sense of the Gospels, what does that say about the state of the evidence?  And what does that say about the value of the criterion of disputation?

I tend to think the greater danger is in merely taking the information within our texts for granted, that is to say, simply relying upon consensus rather than doing any of the leg work to verify the validity of a consensus.  For example, I trust my doctors, but I still look into the medication they prescribe me just to make sure I know what I’m taking.  If I have questions, I consult my doctor or get a second opinion (or a third or fourth).  And when a scientist presents a study on evolution, I look into it as well because I don’t know whether that scientist is presenting credible arguments from the evidence–even if his premise (evolution) is one with which I agree.  Another example of this is when geologists try to suggest that a gust of wind is responsible for the parting of the sea during the crossing of the Israelites from Egypt or that an earthquake can accurate point to the exact day of the crucifixion.  Doing one’s due diligence is not something to be ridiculed, in my humble opinion. Being a responsible scholar depends on ones familiarity with the basics–not just the knowledge that everyone agrees with them.

All I want to see is more honesty.  My goal in all of this is to simply keep the conversation open.  Maybe one day we’ll have evidence which will close it, but I don’t think we currently do.  I think there are multiple ways to interpret the data which are all just as useful and realistic and possible.  But what this criterion does is shut out the alternate realistic possibility that people in antiquity rarely disputed traditions–because traditions were more important than the fact of them.  The same could be said of Tea Party candidates today who believe that the early founding fathers of this country established a Christian nation, that Jefferson was a religious fellow; tradition (even if that tradition was just created) is more important than the facts.

The criterion of disputation doesn’t allow for the facts; it presumes things about it that we can provide ample evidence against.  And those who use it should always be cautious.

Related Articles: Minimalism and Ancient Historiography

Defining Mythicism: Parallelomania, Luxor, and Acharya S

This is nothing new for those who read this blog, but Richard Carrier has posted an excellent example of a problem that plagues the case for mythicism: Parallelomania.  I’ve stated over and over (and over and over) again that correlation does not equal causation.  Here is a snippet from his blog on the subject:

Parallelomania is the particular disease of Jesus myth advocates who see “parallels” everywhere between early Christianity and all manner of pagan religions. Many of those parallels are real; don’t get me wrong. Some are even causal (Christianity really is a syncretism of Judaism and paganism, which point I will soundly prove in my coming book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ). But most parallels are not real, or are not causally related (remember that basic rule in science: correlation is not causation). Some don’t even exist (and here bad scholarship becomes the disease: see my cautionary review of Kersey Graves’ Sixteen Crucified Saviors).

One important example of a “non-parallel” is the Egyptian nativity narrative at Luxor. I reviewed this claim years ago (Brunner’s Gottkoenigs & the Nativity of Jesus: A Brief Communication). Acharya S (aka D.M. Murdock) responded to that by claiming I was reading the wrong text (and also not reading it right), but she’s mistaken. She also claimed that the meaning of “immaculate conception” is up for debate; it is not. She simply cites other people making the same mistake she did, as if a mistake many people make ceases to be a mistake, which is a non sequitur. It would have been better if she had not doubled down on her error and just corrected herself. But that’s her own look out. What concerns me more is her poor treatment of the details of Egyptian history and the texts in the Luxor case.

That Luxor Thing | Richard Carrier Blogs.

His conclusion is too good to simply quote here out of context.  Do read on.

Defining Mythicism: Richard Carrier – “Did Jesus Exist?”

This video is some years old and people’s perspectives become more refined over time.  So I asked Richard if he still stands behind this video before vlogging.  Richard noted, in response:

In the intro of the S.II talk I establish caveats (that the talk itself is tongue in cheek and doesn’t address lots of other issues like the Josephus passages or letters of Paul and so on), but the overall argument is something I will formalize, possibly with some changes, in On the Historicity of Jesus Christ. Obviously that only treats Acts in relation to the question. I’ll have different chapters on extra-biblical evidence, the epistles, the gospels, etc. I give a somewhat serious version of the argument in my online debate with O’Connell (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/carrier-oconnell/)

Richard adds another caveat:

My argument now is that we face a dilemma, either (a) Acts is fiction from the ground up, or (b) it is based on an earlier set of sources; if (a), then obviously Acts is eliminated as evidence for historicity; but if (b), then the earliest sources behind Acts can be shown to have been suspiciously lacking a historical Jesus. Ironically this means the more reliable you deem Acts to be, the less likely Jesus existed as a historical person (unless you deem Acts to be so reliable as to be free of any error or distortion whatever, but only fundamentalists would believe something so absurd of any ancient historical narrative).

It’s a little crass at times, but overall humorous and provocative food-for-thought.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and the Q&A; I like that carrier does not resort to conspiracy theory.  In fact in the end, during Q&A, Carrier outlines his problems with the movie Zeitgeist and his frustrations with it are my own.

Richard Carrier “Did Jesus Exist?” Skepticon 2 Redux – YouTube.

Defining Mythicism: Explaining ‘Jesus Possibilianism’

Recently I have become acquainted with the concept of Possibilianism (and I think it best represents what I am now).  But not only does it fit me epistemologically, but I think it fits my position on the figure of Jesus as well.  Steven Carr has asked (I think, since at times it is difficult to get at his meaning) about my agnosticism, as if I am suggesting I sort of just sit on the fence about it.  And that isn’t necessarily my position at all, as I do not just throw my hands up in the air and say, sighing, “Well, I guess my job is done now since I don’t have a specific definitive position on historicity.”  But I was wont to explain it in more detail as I hadn’t quite had an opportunity to weigh out what exactly my position was.  Thankfully, it seems Possibilianism has proven to be quite useful.  I’d like then to propose a new term for your consideration and one I’d like to become accepted within the community, Jesus Possibilianism.  Essentially, as it should be defined:

Jesus Possibilianism: (noun) The position that, while not accepting current trends in mythicism (or as I call it, Zeitgeist Mythicism) nor aligning oneself with the theistic epistemological positions on Jesus, refuses to take any hardline approach on historicity (that is, not accepting nor denying affirmitively historicity) while actively engaging in attempting to discover (through academic pursuits) the reality of the multiple positions on the figure of Jesus as they are today, were in the past (both distant and near), and will be in the future (through meme theory).

That is to say, while I doubt historicity, I still seek to determine the value of historicity and do not refuse the possibility, as I recognize the limitations of the evidence and the differences in interpretation which can be as valid (or more valid, in some instances) as those produced by those who call themselves mythicists.

 

Defining Mythicism: Post Compilation of Articles on Jesus

Some have expressed interest in a compilation blog post combining all my articles on mythicism and the figure of Jesus from this site.  So below I have compiled a list of blogs I’ve written for the series ‘Defining Mythicism’.

Below are articles on the figure of Jesus which are not a part of the ‘Defining Mythicism’ series:

Below are articles on Zeitgeist and Acharya S/Dorothy Murdock.

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.”

And:

“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.

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