Humor in Biblical Studies

July 26, 2015

Almost a year ago I finished expanding my posts on Brodie’s Jesus-didn’t-exist book and Ehrman’s yes-he-did book into an article for an academic peer-reviewed journal, to be published later this year.  As I did more research on this controversy, one aspect of it struck me forcefully: many or most people on both sides of the fence were remarkably intolerant and contemptuous of the other side.

In what you might think of as an “academic” debate why should people get so incensed at and abusive toward those who disagree?  Realistically speaking, what palpable effect does it have on anyone whether someone else believes or disbelieves the historicity of a literary character from millennia-old texts?

In reading and thinking about this issue I reached a conclusion that may sound counter-intuitive:  the very best biblical scholars are those that maintain a sense of humor toward their subject matter and toward those who disagree with them.  And I mean a good-natured sense of humor, not a sarcastic sense of humor.  The issue is this:  I see contemptuous and abusive language as evidence that the perpetrator likely has some kind of vested interest in a particular belief about the subject.  They may be Christian believers for whom the claim that Jesus never existed threatens their own eternal salvation or their ability to proselytize others.  Or they may be anti-religion and think that the claim that Jesus did exist harms their anti-proselytization efforts.  In any case, there is probably some vested interest or they wouldn’t react so virulently.

Having a vested interest in a viewpoint or in the outcome of an investigation blinds people to opposing evidence and arguments.  A good-natured sense of humor is often evidence that someone is open to all of the evidence and all of the viewpoints.  Sometimes that attitude shows up in person but not so much in their writing, as is true of Thomas Brodie. Sometimes – unfortunately rarely among biblical scholars – it shows up in their writing. 

Michael Goulder was one of the greatest biblical scholars of our time, and part of his greatness is in the sense of humor that finds expression in his writing. A great example is in a by-now little known text he wrote in the 1970s. At the time, incarnation theology was debated as vigorously as Jesus’s existence is today.  “The incarnation” is the belief held by many Christians that “God became man” in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ was at the same time both human and God.  For Goulder the very idea is nonsense in the same way that that the idea of Jesus’s non-existence is nonsense to Bart Ehrman, but look at how Goulder deals with the idea and its contemporary supporters.

Modern kenotic theologians,  like Professor E. L. Mascall or Fr. H. McCabe, seem to opt instead for vacuity: Jesus is metaphysically the Word of God, in his person, in his ego, but his human nature or consciousness is not affected by this. I will return to Mascall shortly, but perhaps I may make the general point with a parable. Returning from abroad with a friend, I hear that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedlam is Lord Beaver. ‘What!’, I say, ‘A new V-C?’ No, replies my friend, ‘the old V-C, Sir Robert Badger, must have become a peer’. In the distance Lord Beaver looks like Sir Robert, and the voice is similar, and the same conspicuous probity governs all his actions; but on closer acquaintance the differences seem obvious. ‘Oh’, says my friend, ‘he must have had a face-lift; and his voice is pitched deeper because of the new dignity; and he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but It is the same chap.’ Soon I feel driven to ask ‘But what is in common between the V -C we knew and the V -C we know?’ If I am told, ‘Nothing. But metaphysically they are the same: It is a paradox’, two consequences will follow: first, I shall feel totally mystified, and second, I shall suspect that what began as a misidentification is being maintained from a reluctance to confess error.

– Michael Goulder, Incarnation and Myth. The Debate Continued (Eerdmans, 1979), 54-55.

Every time I read this I have to laugh out loud when I get to “he will have had a new central nervous system put in for the job: but it is the same chap.”

Why can’t more scholars write like this?  There is no contempt here for Mascall and McCabe; there is rather a feeling of “mystification” at how people could maintain a position that seems nonsensical to the author.  Notice also the tentative nature of the language: rather than expressions of certainty we read phrases like “seem to” with regard to the other’s’ position and  “I shall suspect” with regard to the author’s position.

Ironically, it is the scholars who express absolute certainty of their own views and contempt for others who should be treated with the most suspicion. This principle is an especially important guideline for readers who don’t have sufficient academic background to judge the evidence themselves. And scholars who express themselves in measured tones like Goulder are most to be trusted – partly because in point of fact, there is precious little that can be said with absolute certainty about any ancient literature, including biblical texts.


Lemche, Certainty, and the Obama Crusades Controversy

March 14, 2015

Obama hit the nail on the head when he ascribed religion-inspired violence not so much to particular religious doctrines as to “fierce certainty” — shared by some Christians as well as Islamic militants — “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” Adherents of any religion who firmly hold in mind the humble thought, “I might be wrong” are likely to be more respectful of other religions.  For Christians who find that difficult because they think their religion is unique, Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History, may be an eye-opener.


Lemche explains that over time scholars have come to realize that from beginning to end what the Bible presents as one long history from Adam to Ezra and Nehemiah has very little actual history in our sense of that word in it.

Scholars have long recognized the creation, flood, and other narratives preceding the story of Abraham to be legendary, but since the 1970s the stories about the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) have also been recognized as fictional.

Apart from some conservative authors, no serious Old Testament scholar will nowadays accept the age of the patriarchs as a historical period. (1732*)

The story of Moses and the exodus has gone the same way.

Thus the story of the exodus is about as legendary as the patriarchal narratives. It definitely has a different topic, but when it comes to the historical content, these two biblical traditions are on the same level. (1818)

The next presumption of historicity to fall was regarding the supposed conquest of Canaan by the Israelites after the exodus.

… it still remains certain that the Israelite conquest of Canaan as related by the book of Joshua lacks every historical foundation. (1890)

The period of judges following the conquest must also be discarded. For years scholars confidently talked about the existence of a tribal confederation called the “amphictyony” and that too has passed into the realm of once-solid scholarly consensuses later abandoned.

The sad end of the hypothesis of the amphictyony showed how fragile the edifice of the scholars had been. Old Testament scholars had constructed the amphictyony rather than reconstructed it on the basis of available sources. (1925)

What about mighty David and wise Solomon?

… about the two great kings of Israel there is complete silence [in contemporary records]. Not a single inscription has been found from their time, not a single fragment of an imperial construction. Not one contemporary document from the ancient Near East mentions either of these two imperial monarchs. (1974)

From the perspective of the tenth century, David and Solomon are invisible. It is as if they never lived. (1978)

(Thomas L. Thompson’s Biblical Narrative and Palestine’s History points out that archeological evidence also leads to a similar conclusion:  “… we lack evidence of a city of the tenth century in Jerusalem and, even more importantly, evidence of any significant population in the Judean highlands.” p.147)

After David and Solomon the Old Testament tells us about a series of kings of Israel and Judah. Many of the royal names are accurate, but the stories told about them are largely fiction.

Near Eastern documents indicate that the history of Israel and Judah-at least between about 850 BCE and 587 BCE-is not totally an invention. (2072)

Perhaps the perspective is not totally wrong, but it is also possible that the perspective on the history of Israel and Judah presented by the historiographer has as little to do with history as was the case of the traditions of the earlier parts of Israel’s history. (2090)

Lemche points out that the Old Testament historiographers actually had little documentation to work with and in one instance where we can see what they had, we see that they expanded very little data into a largely fictional story.

The conclusion must be that the historiographer writing the story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah possessed some exact information as short annalistic notes. The historiographer was hardly in possession of much additional material. It probably was of little importance to the historiographer, who was not shy about rewriting his information into legendary tales. The best example-an example that can be examined by modern historians-is the story of Sennacherib’s attack on Judah in 701 BCE. Here a short note (2 Kgs. 18:13-16) of definite historical importance has, at the hand of the historiographer, been vastly expanded into a fairy tale about God’s deliverance of his beloved city (2 Kgs. 18:17-19:37). (2224)

The same expansion of a tiny historical seed into a gigantic fictional tree may be true of the famous Babylonian exile.

The lack of information about the Babylonian exile in and outside of the Old Testament means that we know almost nothing about this exile. … At some point the scholar has to ask himself, was this exile real? … Could it be an ideological construction created at a later date to legitimize the right of the Jews to Palestine in spite of the fact that they were not the only ones whose ancestors had lived in the country? (2140)

Finally even the post-exile stories about Ezra and Nehemiah are largely just that – stories.

The consequence is that biblical authors may have invented a hero of Jewish faith by the name of Ezra who is the person who recites the Law of Moses to the people and completes an ethnic cleansing of the Jewish nation. Ezra is the true father of Judaism, although he seems to have no family and an invented genealogy. (2205)

In conclusion the entire sweep of Old Testament “history” is a collection of made-up stories wrapped around a remarkably thin framework of historical facts.

It has to be maintained that the story of ancient Israel in the Old Testament from Abraham to Ezra and Nehemiah is about a history that never happened. (2220)

… the biblical version of Israel’s history “never happened.” There was never a historical development of the kind narrated by the biblical historiographer. (2915)

Nothing indicates that the [Old Testament] historiographers were very interested in the past as it really was. (2525)

It is not possible to reconstruct the history of Israel in ancient times on the basis of the information in the Old Testament. This circumstance has not deterred scholars from writing such impossible histories. (2231)

It is clear that the Old Testament perspective of history absolutely distorts the facts. The historiographers of the Old Testament have absolutely no interest in the real history of Palestine in ancient times. (5655)

Does this matter to Christians?  It does for those whose faith depends on the New Testament stories about Jesus being “true” in the sense of reflecting historical reality. The New Testament is built firmly on the foundation of the Old Testament, and if the foundation is not about historical reality, neither is the edifice built upon it. I’ve already written elsewhere about problems with the historicity of Jesus stories, and everything Lemche reports about what scholars have found in the Old Testament adds to those problems.

The belief by Christians that the Bible as a whole reflects historical reality is what necessitates the belief that Christianity is uniquely “true” compared to other religions.  That in turn is the first step on a road to the kind of “fierce certainty” that leads at best to a condescending attitude toward other religions and at worst to ISIS-like behavior.

Lemche cites a statement by James Albright that shows what I mean. Albright was a prominent scholar who led the effort to use archeology to prove the historical reliability of the Bible. Regarding the Biblical account of how after the exodus the Israelites – at God’s command — killed off and drove out the residents of Canaan (Palestine) and took over the land, Albright assumed it was historically true and had this to say about it:

It was fortunate for the future of monotheism that the Israelites of the Conquest were a wild folk, endowed with primitive energy and ruthless will to exist, since the resulting decimation of the Canaanites prevented the complete fusion of the two kindred folk which would almost inevitably have depressed Yahwistic standards to the point where recovery was impossible. Thus the Canaanites, with their orgiastic nature worship, their cult of fertility in the form of serpent symbols and sensuous nudity, and their gross mythology, were replaced by Israel, with its pastoral simplicity and purity of life, its lofty monotheism, and its severe code of ethics. (4405)

How different is this from a Muslim who today justifies ISIS beheadings as necessary in order to promote the victory of Islam?  Does it really make a difference whether you’re approving atrocities that were done days ago or three thousand years ago?

So Obama was right: “fierce certainty” of having a lock on “the truth” makes Christianity and Christians a part of the problem no less than Islam and Muslims.  Where he missed the boat – deliberately for political reasons perhaps – is by omitting to mention that the same issue applies to Judaism and Jews and the state of Israel. 

In the article Obama and Palestine’s Forgotten Past, Old Testament scholar Keith Whitelam decries statements made by Obama while in Israel, in which the president one-sidedly supported Israeli views about biblical history, views which depend wholly on this now-discredited view of Old Testament history.

Lemche too points out the real-life consequences of misinterpreting biblical texts, in his introduction to the Albright quote cited above.  He warns that such interpretations have been used and continue to be used to inspire and justify violence in our own day:

The modern “translation” of this ideology formed the intellectual background of the Jewish return to Palestine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, now with the sword replaced by a gun. The Arab population, whether Muslim or Christian, had to be viewed as foreign intruders without any right to the country. The Bible turned into a tool for suppressing other people and for ethnic cleansing … (4400)

*References to Lemche’s book are to location numbers in the Kindle edition.

Obama, the Crusades, Niels Peter Lemche, and Old Testament History

February 11, 2015

On February 5, President Obama made a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in which he reminded listeners that Christians too, not only Islamic terrorists, have done horrible things in the name of service to God. The ensuing storm of protest is well represented by the expression of outrage that Governor Jindal of Louisiana posted on the state government website:

It was nice of the President to give us a history lesson at the Prayer breakfast.  Today, however, the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, is the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.
We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.

Reading comments like this makes me wonder, how many of these people actually listened to or read the president’s remarks in context before condemning them? 

It’s as though everyone heard a short sound bite including the word “Crusades” and jumped out with guns blazing.  But anyone who actually reads the whole speech will find a remarkably well balanced and thought-out composition.  For those without time to read its 2,900 words, here’s a recap of the main points, illustrated with selected quotations.

Obama begins by posing the paradox that religion can be a force for good or misused as a force for evil:

… around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another [examples follow] …

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. [examples follow, including ISIL barbarism] …

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious [faiths] for their own murderous ends?

Some Christians are tempted to blame Islam itself for the evils perpetrated in its name, and so Obama pointedly reminds them that their religion is equally subject to “hijacking for murderous ends.” Notice that “Crusades” is just one out of four examples Obama cites, all of them valid evidence to make a valid point that this is not a case of good religion vs. bad religion.

… lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. [example of religious strife in India follows]

So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Having pointed out the problem, he moves on to say that we all have a duty to do something about the intolerance that lies at the root of terrorism.

In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

The first of three guiding principles for how to combat the evils of religious violence is humility:

… we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

… we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.

… as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.

A practical way to foster humility is to uphold freedom of religion and freedom of speech:

And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion …

There’s wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation the notion of freedom of religion, because they understood the need for humility.  They also understood the need to uphold freedom of speech, that there was a connection between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

…  the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment …

The second guiding principle is separation of church and state:

… the result [of separation of church and state] is a culture where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can freely and proudly worship, without fear, or coercion … So the freedom of religion is a value we will continue to protect here at home and stand up for around the world, and is one that we guard vigilantly here in the United States. [examples follow showing U.S. support for people persecuted abroad for their religious beliefs]

And the third and last guiding principle is the Golden Rule:

And, finally, let’s remember that if there is one law that we can all be most certain of that seems to bind people of all faiths … that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated. … Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace, and bringing light where there is darkness, and sowing love where there is hatred. [examples follow showing how people of different religions endorse this principle] …

The speech ends with a call to action, after reiterating the primary guiding principle:

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I’m not one to get excited about politicians’ speeches, and I’m usually on the opposite side of the political fence from Obama, but this is a magnificent speech. Content such as this could have come from a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Dalai Lama. It’s the perfect call to action against terrorism for a prayer breakfast.

Contra Governor Jindal, Obama’s speech did indeed address “the issue right in front of his nose, in the here and now, … the terrorism of Radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.” The speech explicitly mentions ISIL’s barbarism as an example that springs from the kind of intolerance that we all have a responsibility to counteract.

Obama’s prescription for counteracting such evil – maintaining an attitude of humility, affirming freedom of speech and religion, and living by the Golden Rule — is precisely the way that each of us can play a role however indirectly in dealing with the root cause of terrorism. Jindal’s dismissive remark “The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today” totally misses the point. It’s not a long gone “Medieval Christian threat,” it’s a very real modern Christian threat. When modern Christians assume with “fierce certainty” that their religion is right and Islam is wrong, they are part of the problem rather than the solution.

In a national prayer breakfast speech Obama had no need to mention that he is dealing with the terrorist threat militarily where appropriate. He’s given ample proof in other contexts that he’s not naïvely assuming we can always forego that kind of response. The appropriate subject of a prayer breakfast speech would be how people of faith can best respond to the situation, and he hit that nail right on the head.

That said, what does all this have to do with Old Testament?  The issue is this:  some Christians tend strongly toward that “fierce certainty” which is the opposite of humility and breeds the intolerance that is behind so much evil in the world.  Obama’s attempt to help them see a different perspective by reminding them of past horrors inspired and condoned by Christianity seems to have aroused more indignation than humility. But a different approach might work better: what if you could show Christians that a basis for that tolerant perspective can be found right in the pages of their own Bible?

Enter Niels Peter Lemche’s survey of modern biblical scholarship, The Old Testament between Theology and History.


Lemche is one of a growing body of biblical scholars whose work, if understood and taken seriously, undermines the “fierce certainty” of some Christians “that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others.” In subsequent posts I’ll recount how what we have learned about the Old Testament can help Christians accept that other religions have equal access to truth and equally inspire “the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths.”

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor versus Thomas Brodie

July 20, 2014

I’m developing my posts on the Brodie and Ehrman books into a review article for an academic journal. That has led me to read a lot of material written to debate whether Jesus was a historical person, and the most prominent characteristic I’ve found is acrimony. Relatively few people seem able to engage in this debate without sounding indignant about or contemptuous toward the opposing side.

Thomas Brodie is an exception. Even when responding directly to Bart Ehrman in his book Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, he maintains a respectful, matter-of-fact tone. Search high and wide through Brodie’s writings and you’ll find no expressions of contempt for those who disagree with him or anger at them for disagreeing. I attended several of his sessions at the 2012 SBL conference and met him for lunch, and found him to have a good-natured sense of humor at all times. Great enthusiasm for the study of scripture and nothing negative to say about anyone. I believe his respectful attitude toward all, including those who take opposing stands, is part of the reason why so much of what he writes shows more insight than most of his peers. I am not personally convinced by everything he’s written, but I respect his scholarly judgment and consider him to be one of the half-dozen or so greatest New Testament scholars of our time.

But most people are not so affable about disagreement when they perceive it as relating to religious beliefs. Brodie paid a heavy price personally and professionally for “coming out” publicly with the belief that Jesus was strictly a literary character. Although his book also eloquently expressed the strength of his Christian faith, the first consequence was the loss of his job as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute. The situation is described well in Thomas Brodie and Intellectual Honesty in Biblical Studies, a blog post by a colleague who had been one of his students:

While arguing for the non-existence of Jesus is nothing new and not unheard of in scholarship (where the term is mythicism) it is controversial when it comes from the pen of a Dominican priest. Sensing trouble over this publication Brodie did not consult the Church first – something which he was required to do. This resulted in a ban from publishing, teaching and preaching, and Brodie resigned his position as director of the Dominican Biblical Institute in Limerick. This resignation was not of his choosing, I am sure of that. I was a student of Brodie for the past 5 years and he would be in his office before 8am every day and would not leave until at least 9pm – 7 days a week. He was extremely dedicated and passionate and would not walk away from his work lightly.

What it comes down to is intellectual honesty in biblical studies and that can be fairly limited depending on your background. Thomas Brodie gave a great display in intellectual honesty in the publication of his last book and he was crucified (ahem!) for it. … Someone remarked to me that he was intellectually dishonest in not saying this sooner and that this was underneath all his previous research and we did not have the full picture. My answer to that was that he had little choice until now. He made clear in the first page of this book that if he didn’t say it now he never would as he is an aging man. He threw caution to the wind and paid the price.

Another consequence for Brodie was a public attack against him in print. The official journal of the Dominican order, Doctrine & Life, devoted its July, 2013 issue to a collection of articles that critiqued Brodie’s arguments against Jesus’s historicity. Now, you might expect that a close-knit group of Christian academics within the same religious order would treat each other with love and kindness, and when they disagreed they would do so courteously and respectfully.

That’s not what happened.

It’s not unknown for an academic journal to publish a collection of articles critiquing a controversial book. When they do that, typically they give the book author a chance to respond to the reviewers. And of course typically the reviewers address the author respectfully as an esteemed colleague with whom they disagree about certain points.  The Dominicans took a radically different approach. What is striking about this collection of articles is the predominantly condescending and disdainful tone not only toward Brodie’s arguments but even toward his person. And that attitude is implicitly reflected also in the editorial decision not to publish a response from Brodie himself.

The critique of Brodie’s book consists of four articles, one by a well-known biblical scholar and fellow Dominican, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Murphy-O’Connor, who died shortly after writing this article about Brodie, was one of the foremost scholars of the Pauline literature, with many books about Paul and the Pauline literature to his credit.

In his article “Understanding the World of the Ancients,” Murphy-O’Connor’s language frequently sounds indignant and contemptuous:

Brodie evidently knows little about antiquity He several times emphasizes that he came to his essential conclusions very early in the 1970s; the proofs came later. One might suspect that the only evidence he considered seriously was that which appeared to fit his preconceived thesis. (p. 11)

Evidently, suspension of the reader’s (or student’s) critical sense is indispensable to Brodie’s methodology, which is dominated by wishful thinking. (p. 14)

Brodie does not help his case by writing that he would need 30 pages to work out the parallel clearly (p. 142). He evidently recognizes that persuasion would be difficult without a thick smoke screen! Here he provides barely a page. To appeal to faith is much easier. (p. 14)

If any one passage can be said to highlight the wishful thinking of Brodie’s methodology this is it. One has only to read the passages in Numbers that he suggests, to realize the abyss between the two texts, which Brodie vainly attempts to camouflage by the weasel language ‘largely a synthesis and adaptation’. (p. 14)

Logic is totally lacking. Perhaps it has been replaced by special revelation! In any case, Brodie never offers the slightest evidence against Pauline authorship of any of the letters. (p. 15)

This last triumphal proclamation closes the article.

Some of the parallels Brodie points out when he asserts a New Testament text was written by adapting an Old Testament text are indeed subtle. Such arguments are not necessarily convincing for everyone, but they’re part of a large body of evidence in which some points are stronger and some weaker. The conclusion you reach depends on the cumulative impact of all of the evidence. Murphy-O’Connor seizes on the weakest links without addressing the stronger ones. And he is not above creating a straw man and demolishing that. He states:

… Brodie believes that the intention of Jews in writing Genesis was to preserve for their people Homer’s Odyssey, and the way that Matthew’s community preserved Paul’s letter to the Romans was in the First Gospel! (p. 10)

Murphy-O’Connor cites page 133 in Brodie’s book for this assertion. Go there and you find that this is not at all what Brodie was saying.  What Brodie says there is that “within Genesis lies a transformation of Homer’s Odyssey and “within Matthew lies a transformation of Romans,” not that the transformation was done primarily to preserve the original text. On p. 130 Brodie explains that the purpose of transformation is “to respect and preserve the text in adapted form so that it fulfils some other function.” But Murphy-O’Connor uses the belief he falsely attributes to Brodie as the basis for questioning Brodie’s reasoning: “The absurdity of the conclusion strongly suggests that the basic principle is somehow flawed.” (p. 10)

As in personal relationships, so in academic debates, you’re often guilty of the very thing you criticize in others. Murphy-O’Connor repeatedly accuses Brodie of wishful thinking, but a significant part of his article is about why a historical Jesus is required for Christian faith.

Thus, to walk on the moon is no longer a utopian idea; it has been done. Similarly the lifestyle demanded by Jesus of his followers is known to be really possible because Jesus lived that way. The ideal, in other words, is not a utopia; it has been achieved, and can be achieved by other human beings. … To follow Christ is not to chase a utopian dream but to imitate the exemplary life of Jesus. (p.13)

Clearly, Murphy-O’Connor’s Christian faith requires a historical Jesus, so for him, Brodie’s thesis can’t possibly be true. And that standpoint is arguably the root motivation for the intemperate attacks on Brodie.

Murphy-O’Connor’s article and the other three in the Doctrine and Life issue don’t add much substantive content to the debate. They express worries that the Catholic faithful will be led astray, they assert that Brodie did not prove his point, and their tone is condescending in two of the three.

The only one of the four articles that maintains a respectful attitude toward Brodie is “Lessons from an Offbeat Intervention” by Fergus Kerr.  Kerr finds Brodie’s book unconvincing but sees value in it as something that challenges people to think about and question their religious beliefs.

Kerr does argue that it’s hard to believe a character like Paul could be completely made up. “To believe this, one would have to admire the control that the scribes possessed of the geographical details, the twists and turns of the plot, the numerous dramatis personae and so on, as the story unfolds from Tarsus to Rome.” (p.27) Brodie acknowledges there might have been an individual behind the portrayals, and Kerr asks, “Why could this genius not have been the historical Paul?” (p. 28) But Kerr doesn’t dismiss Brodie’s position on Paul and Jesus out of hand – “And again, as with the fictitious Paul, these inventive narrators would have had to maintain remarkable control over very heterogeneous material – not an impossibility, perhaps.” (p.29)

In my view Kerr and the other Dominicans are correct that Brodie’s confidence in his conclusion goes beyond what the evidence warrants. But overconfidence is endemic among scholars of scripture and ancient history. When all we have to go on is ancient literature, little is certain and nothing can be “proved,” but scholars want to feel confident about something. Nevertheless, in order to be a milestone positive accomplishment for the world of scriptural scholarship, Brodie’s book doesn’t have to convince everyone. What is does accomplish is help establish that that a serious scholar can indeed take a mythicist position. It helps show that mythicism an intellectually viable position even if not universally convincing. And you can reject Brodie’s absolute denial of Jesus’ historicity while accepting his point that we should focus our efforts at understanding Jesus on literary rather than historical investigations.

It’s a truism among scholars that everyone has assumptions and presuppositions, and no one can completely escape the impact of that.  It’s a valid principle, but there are serious differences in degree of impact. When I see contempt and acrimony in a scholar’s writing, to me that’s a red flag that something is clouding the person’s judgment. And when I see strong devotion to a religious idea that demands a particular conclusion, that’s another red flag. The stark contrast between the attitude toward others evidenced by Thomas Brodie and that evidenced by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor helps confirm for me that Brodie is by far the greater scholar, and his scholarly judgment is in general more reliable.

Philip Davies on Minimalism and Mythicism

April 20, 2014

A few posts back I wrote reviews on books by Bart Ehrman and Thomas Brodie that debate the question of whether Jesus ever existed as a historical person.  I’m currently revising and expanding the scope of those posts to create a review article on the subject for an online journal.

An interesting aspect of that topic is the parallel between the debate about Jesus’s historicity and the debate about the Old Testament patriarchs’ historicity. Forty years ago it was as scandalous to assert that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were strictly literary characters as it is today to say that about Jesus.  But in the course of a few decades, such views about the patriarchs became commonplace.

There are, of course, scholars who still want to believe in the historicity of the Genesis narratives, and they have branded those who don’t agree with them as “minimalists” (i.e., those who see minimal historically accurate narrative in the Old Testament). In my research I ran across some great Internet articles by one of the so-called minimalists, Philip Davies.

Much of what Davies says about the Old Testament historicity debate applies equally to the New Testament equivalent, as he himself points out. The following quotations come from these articles:

For starters, Davies points out that the “minimalism” debate as well as its New Testament “mythicism” equivalent is ultimately driven by personal agendas more than disinterested scholarship. This can be seen from the emotional dismissive language employed by many people who decry “minimalism” or “mythicism”:

What else explains language like “dilettantes” (Rainey 1994: 47) or that minimalism is “a passing fad” (Dever 1996: 8), “trendy” (Dever 2001:25), or ‘twaddle” (Rendsburg nd)? What else leads to the claim that it is motivated by anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism?

… surely the rather fragile historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth should be tested to see what weight it can bear, or even to work out what kind of historical research might be appropriate. Such a normal exercise should hardly generate controversy in most fields of ancient history, but of course New Testament studies is not a normal case, and the highly emotive and dismissive language of, say, Bart Ehrman’s response to Thompson’s The Mythic Past shows (if it needed to be shown), not that the matter is beyond dispute, but that the whole idea of raising this question needs to be attacked, ad hominem, as something outrageous.

Such attacks today against “mythicism” correspond to attacks a few decades ago on “minimalism”:

This is precisely the tactic anti-minimalists tried twenty years ago: their targets were ‘amateurs’, ‘incompetent’, and could be ignored. The ‘amateurs’ are now all retired professors, while virtually everyone else in the field has become minimalist (if in most cases grudgingly and tacitly). So, as the saying goes, déjà vu all over again.

Today the common view among scholars even goes beyond the narrow rejection of historicity for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape.

And this view was not new in the late 20th century:

“Minimalist” positions were common early in the 20th century; perhaps American scholars just need to read more German! If one takes the mid-20th century “biblical archaeology” movement as a temporary departure and not as the new direction, we can easily see how “minimalism” is resuming the older agenda (one that never disappeared, anyway) …

As far as Old Testament narrative goes, Davies questions the historicity not only of Genesis-Judges but also of Israel as a nation and David as one of its kings. What is especially interesting here is the way in which he questions their historicity:

The point at issue is not whether an Israel ever existed, but rather whether the historical ancient Israel was like the portrait in the Bible. But perhaps the distinction is for many not so important. It was, after all, the Biblical Israel that was chosen by God, given a covenant, and promised the land west of the Jordan. Are these things true of the historical people or state that went by the name of Israel? If not…? Well, let us ask “what if not” since the question has to be faced, as Ze’ev Herzog recently did in an article in Ha-Aretz.

Baruch Halpern and Steven Mackenzie each wrote books recently about David. Each one said that a David existed, but not the one described in the Bible. This position is not that far from mine, except that I don’t share their faith in our ability to separate a “historical” one from a “biblical” one. But we can continue to debate (and I am good friends with both). At least we all agree that when we speak of “David” historically we are not speaking of the biblical one.

You could frame the mythicist debate in the same terms. Ultimately what separates “mythicists” from those who dismiss them as cranks is one’s degree of faith in scholars’ ability to separate a historical Jesus from the biblical one. From the ongoing disarray in the historical Jesus field, it’s hard for me to see how a strong faith in that ability could possibly be justified.

In any case, pretty much everything Davies writes makes sense to me, which is something I can say of relatively few biblical scholars. I highly recommend the three articles listed above as well as his books to anyone interested in the question of Bible and history. Other Old Testament scholars who offer a similar perspective and who I also highly recommend include Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, Kurt Noll, and of course Paul Nadim Tarazi.

Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus–Review of Thomas Brodie’s New Book

December 25, 2012


Thomas Brodie’s new book is subtitled Memoir of a Discovery. The “discovery” is his realization that Jesus is a literary character and did not exist as a historical person at all.  This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the thesis of Bart Ehrman’s book that I reviewed in my previous post.

Throughout Ehrman’s book, the one theme that he keeps repeating over and over again is his assertion that no reputable New Testament scholars deny the historicity of Jesus. I pointed out some of the problems with this view already in my last post, and now Brodie’s book certainly blows that assertion out of the water. Brodie is not some half-educated interloper in the field of New Testament scholarship; he is an established biblical scholar who heads an institution devoted to biblical scholarship and has published widely on topics in New Testament studies.

While this book is a memoir that includes personal reminiscences, it also presents reasoned arguments that effectively counter the weightiest points that Ehrman’s book cites to prove Jesus’s historical existence.

Ehrman’s key point was the existence of multiple independent witnesses to the historical Jesus.  He considered Mark, Q, L (Luke’s special material), and M (Matthew’s special material) all to be independent witnesses, and he even cited the Gospel of Thomas and later sources such as Papias, Ignatius, and 1 Clement. Brodie argues that none of these are genuinely independent witnesses.  All of the New Testament sources are actually dependent on Old Testament texts and each other, and later sources are dependent on the New Testament. As for the Gospel of Thomas, dating that text early is “skating on thin ice.” Ehrman doesn’t give the rationale for that dating but cites a source that supposedly has a “strong argument” for it. Brodie checked out the cited source and reports that “the reader who tries to track down that logic by going back to the cited author will discover that the argument, which remains elusive, presupposes having read the author’s yet earlier work.” (228)

Ehrman cites Josephus as another independent witness, and Brodie discounts that independence also. He points out that a genuinely independent witness generally provides information we don’t find elsewhere:

So what do these [non-Christian] sources tell us that is not already in the Gospels or Acts? What do they tell us that bears out independence?
Nothing. (164)

The distinctive writing style of the Josephus texts proves nothing because Josephus wrote in his own style when reporting data from other sources as well. Moreover, Josephus could have had access to the gospels.  He and the evangelists were kindred spirits in that they were highly literate people working with Old Testament scriptures to create new writings with similar narrative content.  And Josephus lived in Rome in close proximity to a Christian community.

Ehrman makes much of his criteria for historicity, of which independent witness is the lynchpin, but he virtually ignores all of the scholarly work being done of late on criteria for literary dependence. As a result, his book “cannot deal adequately with Price and Thompson, and shows little awareness that — whatever some of their opinions — their work has a place in a central new field of biblical research.” (229)

The problem with Ehrman’s approach goes deeper than not giving adequate attention to instances of literary dependence. The problem is that Rule One in any valid list of criteria for historicity would be to determine the literary context of a source, and this is missing from Ehrman’s approach.  As Brodie puts it, “If a newspaper announces cheap flights to Mars, it is important to note whether the advertisement occurs in the Travel Section or in the Cartoons-and-Jokes Page. Clarity on the literary factor is Rule One.” (122)

If, as Brodie asserts – and he backs up his assertion with evidence – the literary context of the New Testament is historicized fiction created by rewriting Old Testament texts, Rule One trumps the other “critieria for historicity.” Sure, there are texts that speak of eye-witnesses and reliable transmission of historical data, but it is a mistake to read such a text as historical, “without asking sufficiently whether it is actually historical or whether it is simply written to look like history.” (122-3)  Even such things as accurate geographical knowledge aren’t necessarily evidence of historicity – Virgil’s Aeneid also shows accurate knowledge of places.

You reach different conclusions once you take into account the literary character of the New Testament books. So, for example, John Meier in A Marginal Jew interprets texts that present Jesus as a new Elijah to mean that a historical Jesus thought of himself as standing in the line of Elijah/Elisha. But the simplest explanation that fits the literary data is that “the evangelists adapted the biblical figure of Elijah to draw the picture of Jesus.” (158)

Explaining the data does not require invoking the historical existence of Jesus. The explanation that suffices without invoking Jesus’ historical existence is the simplest, therefore, in respect for a basic rule of method, it is to be preferred.” (159)

Or, for example, the word tektōn (often translated “carpenter”) that Mark applies to Jesus can be traced to the book of Wisdom:

Wisdom 13, particularly its account of people failing to discern the Creator and of seeing only the works of a tektōn, provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tektōn; it accounts fully for Mark’s data. In essence: once the literary connection is seen, the historical explanation is unnecessary; it goes beyond what is needed to explain the data. (159)

Recognizing the literary character of the New Testament books also leads to discounting oral tradition, another of Ehrman’s key witnesses to a historical Jesus. For Brodie oral tradition is a questionable theory and isn’t necessary:

The core presumption is that Jesus Christ was a specific historical person, and within that theory something is needed to bridge the gap between the death of Jesus (generally placed around 30 CE) and the composition of the Gospels (generally placed around 70-100). . . . Even if the theory were true, the gap could be filled by saying that the evangelists were either present at the events or spoke directly to people who had been. (117)

Brodie doesn’t consider it necessary to invoke either oral tradition or eyewitness testimony because he can trace literary connections in the gospel stories to the Old Testament and the epistles, and the epistles themselves have literary connections to the Old Testament.

Brodie also addresses Ehrman’s assertion that the crucifixion must be historical because early Christians would not have invented the idea of a crucified messiah. For Brodie, the crucifixion and resurrection theme makes perfect sense as a fresh synthesis of Old Testament texts that “deal with the tension between suffering and God’s hope.”  A new adaptation of that theme would have to adjust to a new cultural milieu:

So when there was a need to express the ancient contradiction or paradox between God-based hope and life’s inevitable sufferings it was appropriate to express those sufferings in a clear contemporary image — Roman crucifixion.  It was doubly appropriate in the context of a rhetorical world that sought dramatic effect and energeia) (graphic presentation) . . .(230-1)

The process of adopting crucifixion as a new symbol was like Luke’s drawing on the Naboth story in 1 Kings 21 for his story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts 6-7 and adapting it by replacing the monarchy and assembly of the Old Testament story with the synagogue and Sanhedrin of first century Palestine. Or like Luke’s drawing on the story of the foreign commander Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5 but replacing him with a Roman centurion in Luke 7 and Acts 10.

It’s not just Gospel stories about Jesus that are literary fictions:  Paul himself is a literary construction, since “down-to-earth details concerning Paul are composed on the basis of specific Old Testament texts — details of plot and scene and emotion.” (140) For example, Paul calls the Galatians stupid which sounds like anger, but

when you reconnoiter in the Old Testament, especially in the Greek version, you find a similar text in Jeremiah, where the great prophet effectively calls the people mindless, and then repeats it with intensified effect (Jer. 5:21, 23). . . . Galatians is not raw emotion. It contains a rehearsed literary adaptation of ancient Jeremiah. (141)

Likewise, parts of 1 Corinthians correspond to Deuteronomy. Even the litany of resurrection sightings in 1 Cor 15:1-8 is “a very careful literary synthesis of older texts.” (150)

The story of Paul in Acts is likewise historicized fiction. The storm and shipwreck is modeled on well-known literary accounts of storms, and the rest of the voyage parallels the Old Testament story of people being deported and brought to captivity in Babylon in 2 King 25.

… the figure of Paul was a work of imagination, but this figure had been historicized — presented in a way that made it look like history, history-like, ‘fiction made to resemble the uncertainties of life in history’ (Alter 1981:27). . . . The idea that Paul was a literary figure did not remove the possibility that behind the epistles lay one outstanding historical figure who was central to the inspiring of the epistles, but that is not the figure whom the epistles portray. Under that person’s inspiration — or the inspiration of that person plus co-workers — the epistles portray a single individual, Paul, who incorporates in himself and in his teaching a distillation of the age-long drama of God’s work on earth. (145-6)

Brodie recognizes that these are not common interpretations in scholarship today, but when he reached these conclusions he searched to see if they had occurred to anyone else. He discovered that at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century the biblical scholar Bruno Bauer had already proposed that Paul and Jesus were both mythical creations, and a number of people who followed him in that belief. And of course the New Testament is a continuation and literary inheritor of the Old Testament, and many scholars such as Thomas Thompson, John Van Seters, and Robert Alter have shown that historicized fiction is typical of the Old Testament.

How should Christians react to the realization that the scriptures are not historically accurate?

The undertaking [that produced the NT] contained the building of a story — narrative, historicized-fiction — especially about Jesus and Paul, and such story-building can be described with terms such as fiction, myth, invention, conspiracy, and forgery (Ehrman 2012: 82, 114). The same terms can be used of the Torah, the Book of Moses, which was not written by Moses. At one level these terms are true, but used pejoratively they miss the heart of the matter, namely that, despite their use of story and their limitations, the Torah, Gospels, and Epistles contain deepest wisdom. (231)

All of this also raises the question: what is Christian faith all about if you subtract from it a historical Jesus?

Ehrman’s book could seem to set up a false dilemma: stay with a claim to a historical Jesus, or lose Jesus and, with him, lose God. But there is a further option. Rediscover Jesus as a fresh scripture-based expression of suffering humanity’s deepest strengths and hopes, and thereby rediscover a new sense of the reality we often refer to glibly as God. (231)

A more realistic and constructive approach is to see our coming to terms with a nonhistorical Jesus as the modern counterpart to medieval Christians’ coming to terms with the realization that the earth is not the center of the universe. Both require some rethinking, but after that rethinking the essence of Christian faith remains in both cases. The resulting faith can be stronger and richer than one built on a a doomed attempt to find the historical Jesus. “The quest for the historical Jesus installs the flicker of a matchstick in place of the aurora borealis.” (213)

I highly recommend reading Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus after reading Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist. It is a transformational experience to read something that comes off as absolutely certain and then read a counterpoint that calls into question everything you were just starting to take for granted.  Even if you don’t agree with everything Brodie says, you can’t help but recognize the reasonableness and validity of most of his arguments, yet according to Ehrman such arguments are unreasonable and invalid.

The weak points in Brodie’s book are few. I didn’t see in it an answer to Ehrman’s question about why the early Christians would invent the idea of a brother of Jesus, and the reference to James in Josephus does seem to be independent since it introduces information not in the New Testament. But the weakest link in the argument is not the evidence but the nature of the proposition itself:  it is virtually impossible to prove non-existence of a person no matter how much evidence points in that direction. Even if most of what we have in the New Testament is historicized fiction, there always remains the possibility that somewhere at the back of all that imaginative literature was a real person. We know next to nothing about that person, however, which is not much different and is the point I made in my last post.  In either case the quest for the historical Jesus is futile, and Brodie’s point that it is a counterproductive effort is well taken.

Did Jesus Exist?–-Review of Bart Ehrman’s New Book

November 30, 2012

At the SBL conference I ran across a new book of Bart Ehrman’s titled Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. Why, you might ask, does a whole book need to be written about whether or not Jesus existed as an actual historical human being?  The reason is that a large body of literature has arisen that advocates a so-called “mythicist” view according to which the story of Jesus was created out of thin air by the earliest Christians. Examples are Did Jesus Exist? by George A. Wells, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems by Robert Price, and The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David by Thomas L. Thompson.  Ehrman himself takes it for granted that Jesus was a historical person, but in Did Jesus Exist? he defends that view explicitly against the mythicists.

I found the book disappointing, for two main reasons. The first is that it spends an inordinate amount of time in ad hominem argument. Again and again Erhman confidently informs the reader that everyone trained in the field who teaches biblical studies at reputable institutions agrees with him. Those who disagree are at best “marginal” and at worst ill-informed amateurs driven by ulterior motives for wanting Jesus to be a myth rather than a person.

The second disappointment is related to the first:  there are in fact reputable scholars who do not agree with Ehrman’s key arguments, but he ignores them.  For example:

  • Much of the weight of Ehrman’s argument rests on the value of having multiple “independent” witnesses with stories about Jesus. But the independence of the sources that he relies on is highly debatable. Thomas Brodie’s Birthing of the New Testament presents a plausible scenario in which each Gospel builds on the ones written before it. David Trobisch’s First Edition of the New Testament argues that the whole New Testament was assembled and edited by a single publisher who controlled its contents. Michael Goulder’s Luke: A New Paradigm, along with many other scholarly works in recent years, argues against the two-source hypothesis. (The hypothesis that postulates Q presumes that Luke and Matthew were independent.)  Goulder’s book shows in great detail the evidence for Luke being dependent on Matthew.
  • Among the supposedly independent sources that Ehrman cites are the non-canonical gospels of Peter and Thomas. Both are highly questionable sources, the dating and reliability of which commands no consensus even among scholars Ehrman would consider to be mainstream.   
  • Ehrman stresses the reliability of oral tradition, but other scholars such as Thomas Brodie in Birthing of the New Testament call the whole oral tradition paradigm into question. My book Mark, Canonizer of Paul expands on Brodie’s critique of oral tradition. In Luke: A New Paradigm, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, and other works, Michael Goulder presents evidence that suggests the material unique to Luke and Matthew was composed by them, not reflective either of oral tradition or an earlier written source. 
  • A lot of the weight of Erhman’s argument rests on Mark as the earliest gospel. But his assumption that Mark intended to write historically accurate stories is in turn based on his stated assumption that Mark did not intend to write scripture. That assumption is questionable. The second half of my book Mark, Canonizer of Paul presents evidence for concluding that Mark did in fact intend to write scripture — and historical accuracy is by far not the prime directive for a scripture writer. Any critical commentary such as the two-volume one by Joel Marcus shows that Mark was not especially interested in literal historical accuracy, and other books such as Dennis R. MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark stress that point.

The whole point about relying on scholarly “consensus” and writing off those on the “margins” also is worthy of closer examination. Anyone inclined to see biblical scholarship as a field in which consensus = truth owes it to himself or herself to read Michael Goulder’s Five Stones and a Sling and Dennis R. MacDonald’s My Turn. Actually, any field in the humanities is subject to groupthink, even more than the hard sciences. As Dean Koontz laments in a book about his dog, scholarly training and an attachment to scholarly consensus can be a handicap rather than a guarantee of clear judgment:

Scientists and animal behaviorists have written libraries full of nonsense about the emotions of dogs, suggesting that they do not have emotions as we know them, or that their exhibitions that appear to be emotionally based do not mean what we interpret them to mean in our sentimental determination to see a fellowship between humanity and canines. Like too many specialists in every field, they are educated not out of their ignorance but into ignorance, because they are raised to an imagined state of enlightenment — which is actually dogmatism — where they no longer experience the light of intuition and the fierce brightness of common sense. They see the world through cloudy windows of theory and ideology, which obscure reality. This is why most experts in economics never see the financial disaster coming until the wave breaks over them, why most experts in statecraft and military strategy can be undone by an enemy’s surprise attack.

Parts of Ehrman’s book do make a fairly good case against the extreme mythicist viewpoint. Unfortunately, he goes way beyond that in the last chapter. When he gives details about what the “historical Jesus” must have been like, the weaknesses in his method of establishing historicity become more pronounced. For example, he describes the historical Jesus as (a) an apocalyptic prophet who (b) told parables, (c) had a conflict with the residents of his home town, (d) thought the main commandment of the Torah was love of God and neighbor, (e) ate with sinners and tax collectors, and (f) was betrayed by Judas. It happens that I address each of these issues in my book Mark, Canonizer of Paul.

  • (a) Paul too was an apocalyptic prophet.  Jesus the apocalyptic prophet sounds suspiciously like he could have been created by narrativizing Paul’s epistles. That process began with Mark, and I agree with Jesper Svartvik’s assessment that “The Gospel of Mark may best be described as a narrative presentation of the Pauline Gospel” (Mark and Mission, 345).
  • (b) Mark (and by extension the other evangelists) had a vested interest in presenting his points in parables because he was trying to make points that would otherwise be too obviously anachronistic when set in Jesus’ day. Also, Michael Goulder in Five Stones and a Sling and other works argues that the parables in each gospel have a character unique to the gospel in which they occur, which suggests that the evangelists composed them. 
  • (c) The story about Jesus’ rejection by his relatives and home town can be seen as a way of symbolizing the rejection of Paul’s version of Christianity by the Jews.  The feasibility of this explanation also negates Ehrman’s “criterion of dissimilarity” which he assumes makes said rejection likely to be historical.
  • (d) Paul’s identification of the command to love God and neighbor as the primary commandment of the Torah predates Mark.  The Jesus of the gospels again sounds suspiciously like the Paul of the epistles.
  • (e) The portrayal of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors can be seen as a way to defend Paul’s Gentile mission, a way of showing receptivity to social outcasts. Again, this negates Erhman’s “criterion of dissimilarity” because it gives a plausible reason for the evangelist to have made up such stories.
  • (f) Judas’s betrayal can be seen as a way to symbolize what Mark conceived of as the Christian Jews’  “betrayal” of Christ – that is, their rejection of Paul’s interpretation of what adherence to Christ meant with regard to acceptance of Gentiles.  Once again this explanation negates the “criterion of dissimilarity” and provides a motive for making up the story.

Despite the weaknesses in Ehrman’s book, he does present some valid arguments against the mythicist viewpoint. I find various references in Paul’s epistles to be the strongest, especially the mention of James as Jesus’ brother in Galatians, considering also his appearing out of nowhere in Acts 15. The problem is, Ehrman does not present solid arguments for a historical Christ that we can know a lot about.  How different is a mythical Christ from a historical Jesus that we can’t know much about with any degree of confidence?  In either case, if we want to know the Christ of Christianity we are left with the portrayal in the New Testament.  It’s the New Testament Christ that Christianity is all about, not an imaginary historical Jesus that historians construct by accepting or rejecting various parts of the gospels by applying questionable criteria and by mining equally questionable extra-Biblical sources.

Ehrman refers to one of the mythicists in a way that might just as well refer to him and this book: “He is one smart fellow. But I’m afraid he falls down on this one. Even smart people make mistakes.” (p. 167)

SBL Conference 2012

November 22, 2012

Earlier this week I was in Chicago attending the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference. Last year I presented a paper, much of the content of which ended up in my recently published book. This year I chaired one session but didn’t present anything. Here is a sampling of some of the interesting presentations I attended.

Ute E. Eisen spoke on metalepsis in Luke-Acts.  In literature, one form of metalepsis is when the narrator’s voice intrudes into the narrative.  For example, the story in Mark is told by an omniscient narrator but at one point (13:14) the narrator’s voice breaks in to say “let the reader understand.”  Likewise, in John 20:30 suddenly the narrator addresses the reader directly:

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

In modern literature, such transformations of authorial voice are typically not meant to be serious; in ancient literature it is a device that is often intended to enhance the realism and authority of the narrative. Examples in Luke-Acts where this appears to be the purpose are the prologue of each work, where the narrator says his investigative work enabled him to create the narrative, and the “we” passages in Acts, where the narrative starts to use the first person.  The “we” passages may also have been intended to enhance empathy for the characters of the narrative. Given how well known this is as a literary device, Eisen expressed surprise that there are still commentators who interpret these passages in Acts as an eyewitness account.

Troy M. Troftgruben talked about the long sea voyage in Acts 27:1-28:15.  Why all the minute detail in this section of Acts?  Some interpreters see it as a symbolic way to highlight Paul’s sufferings. Sea voyages were indeed perilous in the first century, especially during winter, and the text does stress the perils that Paul endured and was saved from. But others ask: if the story is allegorical, why so much elaborate detail? If the intended message isn’t really in the details, and details are ultimately to be ignored, why spill so much ink?  And why does the narrative “decelerate” so much toward the end of Acts?  Earlier in Acts, a lot of historical time is covered in relatively short sections of the narrative; here in chapter 27 relatively little historical time is covered in a very large part of the narrative. The answer Troftgruben proposes is that the long passage is intended to cultivate suspense.  Acts is a story, Luke is a good storyteller, and the whole story of Acts is building toward a climax of Paul landing in Rome.  The long sea voyage draws the story out, building in the reader or hearer suspense and expectant waiting for that climax.

A questioner raised the question about why in that case the ending of Acts seems to be so anti-climactic, with Paul just preaching to Jews, the Jews not being interested, and Paul proclaiming his intention to go to the Gentiles thenceforth. Troftgruben explained that he addresses this question in his dissertation, now published as A Conclusion Unhindered. Essentially he sees Acts as deliberately open-ended.  It shows that the story of the spread of the gospel to Rome and throughout the Roman empire is a story that is ongoing, one which the hearer is a part of.  This conclusion is remarkably similar to what I say in my own book about the ending of Mark being deliberately open-ended.

I went to one session about Q, feeling like a spy invading the enemy camp. Winking smile It was devoted to reviewing a book written 25 years ago that went way beyond establishing the text of Q:  The Formation of Q actually elaborated three versions of Q, three stages in the development of this imaginary document!  The author (John Kloppenborg) and four prominent scholars were assembled on the panel to sing hymns of praise to this landmark book.  The room was packed with about 50 people, unlike most sessions at SBL, where the number in attendance often barely exceeds the number of presenters. I thought I would see if anyone there expressed any doubts about the reality of the imaginary Q, any acknowledgement of all the scholarly works that have been written to debunk it in the intervening 25 years since The Formation of Q was written.  But as I listened to the first presentation I got the distinct feeling that in this group I wasn’t going to hear anything remotely like that.  That’s when it occurred to me that another session might be more interesting, and I left early, and that’s how I got to hear the excellent Eisen and Troftgruben presentations.

Another interesting presentation was the one by Tom Nelligan proposing that the story of John the Baptist’s beheading (Mark 6:14-29) in Mark’s gospel is in part dependent on 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  Both texts revolve around a story of sexual impropriety with a close relative. I learned later that Dr. Nelligan recently completed a dissertation on the links between Mark and 1 Corinthians, and I’m looking forward to reading that.

Also very interesting was Thomas Brodie’s presentation of his thesis that the story of the paralytic being let down through the roof in Mark was inspired by the story of a sheet with pictures of animals being let down from the sky in front of Peter in Acts (part of God’s method of convincing Peter that associating with Gentiles was OK).  Not that Brodie thinks Acts as it stands now is earlier than Mark:  he sees Mark as dependent on an earlier version of Luke-Acts that he calls Proto-Luke. He expounds the basis for his Proto-Luke theory in his book The Birthing of the New Testament. The introductory chapters in that book provided much material for my own recent book, but I never had a chance to look closely at the detailed evidence he provides for Proto-Luke.  I’m just getting started on that now.  Most of the people at the session were not familiar with the Proto-Luke theory, and he gave a remarkably dynamic, and one might even say inspiring, introduction to it as part of his paper presentation. He has a new book out, Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus, which I will be reviewing when I can get a copy of it – the publisher was sold out at the SBL exhibit hall.

Also worthy of mention is K. L. Noll’s presentation titled Inventing Yahwism: The Religion of Ancient Israelite Religion.” By “Yahwism” he means the modern conception that something like the religion we now call Judaism existed very early, long before Judaism itself developed. He argues that there was no such “religion” earlier than the Hellenistic period. He points out that if the Hebrew Bible didn’t exist, we would still have plenty of early records that refer to Yahweh, and Yahweh would appear to be a normal run-of-the-mill Canaanite god, just like Chemosh or Baal. But those texts weren’t widely disseminated until the Hellenistic period. The only way you can have anything recognizable as a religion is if you have a system for distributing texts to ensure some kind of uniformity of practice and thinking.  There was no such mechanism before  synagogues arose in the Hellenistic period. You do have mentions in some early texts about public distribution of Yahwist-like texts, but we have no evidence that it actually happened.  What was actually happening was that elites were gathering lore and combining bits and pieces of it into literary texts, and preserving those texts among themselves. The whole idea of “Yahwism” rests on a handful of passages about teaching the people.  Those passages were composed by scribes who never did it and couldn’t do it.  A religious system requires construction of texts, dissemination of them, and maintenance – that is, keeping people attached to the texts.  No system can be disseminated unless the average person can assimilate it.  As Noll puts it, the average person shuns religious esoterica (which also probably means my blog is not destined to break any web traffic records). Yahwism would have required: 1. an effective system for disseminating the teachings of the system among ordinary people; 2. ritual reinforcement of those teachings; 3. a system of defense against the tendency to abandon the religious system.  Only when synagogues arose in the Herodian period does this framework arise. Therefore, Yahwism only emerged in the Hellenistic period.  Some Yahwist literature existed before Ptolemaic times, but it was not disseminated among the hoi polloi.  E.g., Jeremiah wasn’t known; the documents were handled by a small cadre of scribes.  The scribes wrote stories about public dissemination, and the stories might have been used later, but not before the Hellenistic period. Therefore, there was no Iron Age or Persian era Palestinian Yahwism.

Conferences are always a mixed bag. Sessions are often dry and boring, and presenters’ presentation skills are often remarkably poor considering they’re almost all professors who teach for a living. Many or most people attend academic conferences mainly for the social connections or to get a paper presentation into their CV, but these examples show that you can also learn about interesting current research. I was fortunate to hear mostly interesting papers presented in an engaging manner.

More Minor Lucan Muddles

November 10, 2012

Here are some more examples of editorial fatigue in Luke, from Michael Goulder’s Luke: A New Paradigm.

What Evil did Capernaum do?

At the end of the text where Jesus commissions the seventy, Luke has a negative reference to Capernaum that doesn’t make sense in this gospel because nothing has been said about anything negative happening there:

“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. (Luke 10:13-15)

This reference to Capernaum is out of the blue with no indication of why it should be condemned.  In Luke all we have heard of Capernaum up to this point is that Jesus did miracles there (4:23), taught and healed people there (4:31-41) and at a distance healed the slave of a Centurion who lived there (7:1-10).

In Matthew the story makes sense from beginning to end.  Matthew introduces the saying with an explanation:

Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. (Matt 11:20)

And then the text of Jesus’ monologue that Matthew introduced in this manner makes it clear why Capernaum is being singled out:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.

In Matthew everything fits together and makes sense.  In Luke, we have a fragment taken out of context, with an explanatory clause (italicized in the quotation above) dropped. The direction of borrowing appears clear: Luke is copying from Matthew, and in a move that you are by now seeing to be his typical modus operandi, he reworks the text adapted from Matthew in a way that leaves out key pieces of data. Reading Luke alone you would have to guess at what the reference to Capernaum was about.

Tomb Building as Evidence of Complicity in Murder

The saying of Jesus in Luke 11:46-50 contains a couple of muddles:

And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore (διὰ τοῦτο) also the Wisdom of God said, `I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that (ἵνα) the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation . . . (Luke 11:46-50)

One builds a tomb to honor the one buried in it; building the tombs of the prophets is certainly not evidence in and of itself that the builders witnessed the prophets being killed, much less that they must have approved of the killings (“for you build the tombs . . . so you are witnesses and consent”).

And who are the prophets in this saying?  “The prophets whom your fathers killed” is clearly a reference to the Old Testament prophets. The same word appears again later apparently in reference to the same group, here alongside New Testament apostles:  “I will send them prophets and apostles . . .”  The problem here is the text that follows “Therefore” (διὰ τοῦτο).  This clause means that because lawyers in Jesus’ day consented to their fathers’ deeds of killing prophets, God promised to send those very prophets whom the lawyers’ fathers killed. The text goes on to assert that the purpose of sending the prophets (note the ἵνα in v.50) was to make the lawyers of Jesus’ day pay the penalty for all of the prophet killings “from the foundation of the world.” Meanwhile, it isn’t clear anywhere in the text that the lawyers themselves have done anything themselves to merit this extreme penalty, aside from consenting to what “their fathers” did.

Once again, an equally careful examination of the parallel text in Matthew reveals a text that makes sense in its context:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, `If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:29-36)

Here the building of tombs does not ipso facto prove anything, it’s the builders’ own words that witness to the fact that their fathers killed the prophets.  Here the sending of “prophets and wise men” is clearly a future act that gives the scribes and Pharisees themselves an opportunity to “fill up the measure of their fathers” by doing the evil deeds against the prophets themselves. It is then their own evil deeds that will result in their being “sentenced to hell” to pay the penalty for “all the righteous blood shed on earth.” The penalty sounds harsh in the extreme, but there are no illogical leaps or temporal mix-ups here. 

Once again, the direction of borrowing and adapting is from Matthew to Luke.  The mistakes are typically Lucan mistakes in transcribing and editing, especially the omission of crucial explanatory clauses. 

It can seem monotonous to continue to point out all of these instances of editorial fatigue.  But the only way to reach a conclusion with any degree of certainty is to build up a cumulative argument based on a preponderance of evidence.  It is the number of times these kinds of instances show up in Luke, along with the fact that the only editorial fatigue in Matthew occurs in borrowings from Mark, that creates serious difficulties for the Q hypothesis.

Some Less Well Known Lucan Muddles

November 2, 2012

In my previous post I reviewed some of the best known instances of editorial fatigue in Luke. But there are many more that are not so well known. Michael Goulder did a thorough job of digging these up and here are a few from his book Luke: A New Paradigm.

As I explain in Q or No Q: What Difference Does it Make?, each of these may be considered a nail for Q’s coffin because (a) they point toward Luke copying from Matthew and (b) Matthew doesn’t seem to have any that point toward Matthew copying from Luke.

Follow Me and Go Away

In Luke 9:59-60, Jesus tells a man to follow him, then in response to a question from the same man he tells him to go away:

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go (ἀπελθὼν) and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-60)

In Matthew, there is no discordant note because the story ends with “Let the dead bury their dead”. Luke has created a characteristic minor muddle by adding a clause that is out of sync with what went before it.  In the Greek the contrast is even more obvious because ἀπελθὼν literally means “go away,” not simply “go” as RSV translates it.

Goulder suggests that the additional clause comes from Jesus’ words to the twelve in Matthew 10:7 (“And preach as you go, saying, `The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”)

Another possible explanation is that Luke added the “go away and proclaim the kingdom of God” clause because he wanted a parallel between this reluctant follower episode and another one that he wanted to add.  Below is the whole passage in Matthew followed by the whole passage in Luke, with the added parts italicized:

. . . a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matt 8:18-22)

. . . a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)

Notice how adding a reference to the kingdom of God after “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” sets up a parallel to what Jesus says to the additional reluctant follower.

The fact that “go away and proclaim” doesn’t fit with “follow me” is what indicates that the extra wording in Luke was added by him, rather than it being part of a longer original text that Matthew cut off.

Commissioning the Seventy

In Luke 10:1ff., Jesus commissions “seventy others” (other than the twelve) to go before him as he travels. But his opening words to them sound more appropriate as an address to some other audience, since it presumes that someone else will be sent:

After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Luke 10:1-2)

As Goulder points out, “These are not in fact very suitable words with which to open a discourse sending disciples on mission; prayer is suited to a situation when other people are to be sent on mission, as in the Matthean context.” (p. 466) Where Luke found this saying in Matthew it made sense because there Jesus was commenting to his disciples about the lack of shepherds for the crowds:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt 9:36-38)

In Luke, the commissioning of the seventy continues with another Lucan muddle:

Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. (Luke 10:3)

This remark also doesn’t fit the context here, because the the worst that Jesus predicts for the seventy is the possibility that the residents of a town might “not receive you”:

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Luke 10:4-11)

In Matthew, the comment about sheep amidst wolves fits very well because it is addressed to the twelve and comes with a prediction about persecution and martyrdom:

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. . . . Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes. . . . And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. . . . and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. . . . and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:16-39)

Once again, copying by Luke from Matthew is the only conclusion that makes sense in these cases because the copied text makes sense in its Matthean context while in Luke it appears to have been taken out of context.

My next post will relate some more examples of Lucan muddles that create difficulties for the Q hypothesis.