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.

Pounding Some Nails into Q’s Coffin

October 27, 2012

For reasons I explained in my previous post, the examples of editorial fatigue in Luke deserve to be better known than they are. In this post I’ll review some that Mark Goodacre presents in Fatigue in the Synoptics, and in the next post I’ll go over some more that Michael Goulder cites in Luke: A New Paradigm.

The Parable of the Pounds

The parable of the pounds in Luke 19:11-27 contains a couple of muddles. Many English translations deliberately mistranslate the Greek in an attempt to reduce some of the confusion it helps to cause.  Even so, a careful reader will notice two ways in which the text is muddled; see if you can find them before I point them out. I left a clue to one by putting the mistranslated Greek word in parentheses.

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, `Trade with these till I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, `We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading. The first came before him, saying, `Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more.’ And he said to him, `Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, `Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’ And he said to him, `And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another (ὁ ἕτερος) came, saying, `Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, `I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, `Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.’ (And they said to him, `Lord, he has ten pounds!’) `I tell you, that to everyone who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.'”

The first issue is that the story begins with a nobleman giving money to ten servants, but then when the time comes to give an account of what they got it seems there are only three.  It’s not just that we only hear about three of them, which would be strange enough in itself — this part of the parable actually assumes there were only three.  The Greek ὁ ἕτερος does not mean “another,” it means “the other.”  So what we have in vv.16-20 is “The first . . . the second . . . the other” – that is, three servants, not ten.

There’s also a muddle about just how many pounds the first servant ended up with. In v.16 we hear, “Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more,” meaning that this servant ended up with eleven pounds. But when the nobleman metes out punishment to the slothful third servant, the parable gets it wrong:  “`Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.’ (And they said to him, `Lord, he has ten pounds!’)”

These appear to be instances of fatigue because everything makes sense and is internally consistent in the Matthean parallel (Matt 25:14-30):

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, `Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, `Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, `Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, `Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, `You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’

As in the case of the Sower parable, Luke has done some condensing but he did so inconsistently.  Luke changed the start of the parable from three to ten servants, but then when they give an account he slips back to Matthew’s three. (Why change the number from three to ten in the first place?  As Goulder points out, Luke prefers fives and tens; see pp.104-105 for a list of examples.)

Also, in Matthew the first servant had five and gained five, giving him ten in all, so the command “Take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents” makes sense.  Luke copied that command as-is, remembering to change talents to pounds but forgetting that in his changed scenario servant number one ended up with eleven, not ten pounds.

Which Little Ones?

In Luke 17:1-2 we have a reference to “these little ones,” but here in Luke, Jesus is just talking to his disciples with no one else around, and there is no prior indication of what the phrase “these little ones” refers to:  the phrase refers to:

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones (τῶν μικρῶν τούτων) to sin.

In Matthew the phrase makes sense because Jesus makes the remark while children are around and it refers to the children:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones (τῶν μικρῶν τούτων) who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes! (Matt 18:1-7; cf. Mark 9:42-48)

Luke has taken two sayings out of context and reversed their order, and in so doing he forgot that one of them contained a phrase that directly referred to the part of the Matthean context that he dropped.

Which town?

In another example of a missing referent, we find in Luke 9:5 the expression “that town” when there was no mention of a town earlier:

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town (τῆς πόλεως ἐκείνης) shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. (Luke 9:1-6)

The missing pieces are present in the parallel text in Matthew:

These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, `The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or that town (τῆς πόλεως ἐκείνης). Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matt 10:5-15; cf. Mark 6:6b-13)

Here again, the Lucan muddle makes sense as an error in Luke’s adapting the Matthean text.

Missing Ears

In two parallel clauses in Luke 10:23-24, something is missing in the first one:

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24)

“Blessed are the eyes” goes with “see what you see,” but there is nothing to go with “hear what you hear.” The missing phrase is present in the parallel text in Matthew:

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matt 13:16-17)

Here too the Matthean text is consistent, and the Lucan text looks like an imperfect adaptation.

The Centurion’s Boy

Another example where the translators’ choice of words could make a minor Lucan muddle more or less obvious is in the story of the centurion’s boy in Luke 7:1-10. The issue in this text is that Luke vacillates between calling the centurion’s boy a slave (δοῦλος) and a child (παῖς):

After he had ended all his sayings in the hearing of the people he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a slave (δοῦλος) who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave (δοῦλον). And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant (παῖς) be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes; and to another, `Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave (δοῦλον) well. (Luke 7:1-10)

While παῖς can be rendered as “servant,” it has broader usage than δοῦλος and often means simply “child.” That is how RSV translates the word in the other instances where it occurs in Luke (2:43 speaks of “the boy Jesus,” and in 8:54 Jesus says “Child, arise” to a couple’s daughter). This appears to be a case of editorial fatigue because in the parallel text in Matthew, the one healed is consistently called παῖς:

As he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant (παῖς) is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant (παῖς) will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, `Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant (παῖς) was healed at that very moment.

In this post I’ve recounted some of the instances of editorial fatigue that Mark Goodacre mentions in Fatigue in the Synoptics. Michael Goulder found many more, and I’ll draw on those to pound some more nails into Q’s coffin in my next post.

Q or No Q: What Difference Does it Make?

October 20, 2012

The numerous instances of editorial fatigue in the synoptic gospels provide strong evidence that Mark wrote first, Matthew wrote after Mark and used Mark as a source, and Luke wrote after both of them and used both of them as sources.  To summarize:

  • Instances of fatigue that involve Luke and Mark always point toward Luke copying from Mark.
  • Instances of fatigue that involve Matthew and Mark always point toward Matthew copying from Mark.
  • Instances of fatigue that involve Luke and Matthew always point toward Luke copying from Matthew.
  • No one has been able to find instances of fatigue that involve Matthew and Luke, which point toward Matthew copying from Luke.

The last of these points is especially problematic for Q.  If there really was a Q, Matthew should have gotten fatigued while copying from Q as well as while copying from Mark.  But he doesn’t.

But what is really at stake whether we opt for Q or reject it?  Is Q versus non-Q just an ivory tower exercise that academics indulge in to display their erudition, without any real consequences for interpreting what the gospels mean?  Who cares whether Luke copied from Mark and Matthew or from Mark and Q if the Good Samaritan parable means the same thing either way?

Well, it might not make a big difference in how you interpret some of the gospel stories or parables, but it does make a big difference in what you think of early Christianity and how the New Testament as a whole came together. The fundamental principle behind the Q theory is the idea that Luke and Matthew had no knowledge of each other. They were working in separate Christian communities so isolated that each of them had no access to the most important work of scripture created by the other for many years.  And yet somehow both did have copies of Mark and Q. And somehow both were so lax about their own scriptures that both managed to lose Q.

The Q theory paints a picture of disorganized and fragmented Christian communities that haphazardly produced the New Testament. Such disparate groups as a Pauline community, a Matthean community, a Marcan community, a Lucan community, and a Johannine community were independently producing their own scriptures.  Only after centuries did a unified orthodoxy develop along with a hierarchical structure, and this enabled the church writ large to cobble together all these books with competing visions of Christianity into the New Testament that we know today.

Pull Q out of the picture and you have a radically different picture.  Now the community that produced the gospels is (or at least could be) one extended and well-organized community from the very beginning.  Historically speaking, there were in fact competing Christian groups — we know that already from the controversies recorded in the earliest Pauline epistles — but only one of them produced the New Testament.  In Mark, Canonizer of Paul, I present the evidence for concluding that the same community that produced the Pauline epistles also produced Mark, the earliest gospel. In later books I’ll argue that the same community produced the other gospels. Ultimately, then, the entire New Testament was produced, edited, organized, assembled, and preserved all by a single community of church leaders in less than a century. The centuries-long canonization debates involved not gathering independent books into one but gradual acceptance by more and more Christians of something originally presented as authoritative by its publishers. 

A similar picture of the New Testament’s origins is proposed by David Trobisch on the basis of evidence he found in the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  On that thesis, see my article, David Trobisch and David Parker on the Origin of the New Testament, the Historical Jesus, and How Manuscripts Can Reveal What Texts Conceal and Trobisch’s book, The First Edition of the New Testament. In this blog series I am presenting some of the internal textual evidence that leads to much the same conclusion that Trobisch reached on the basis of external evidence.

If there was no Q and no independent communities producing the gospels, the search for the historical Jesus turns out to be on shakier grounds than it otherwise might appear to be. That search depends on our ability to compare and contrast independent sources within the New Testament.  But there aren’t multiple independent sources if one and the same cartel of church leaders produced the entire New Testament.  Nor is the appeal to oral tradition as an independent source a convincing argument, as I show in Mark, Canonizer of Paul. In effect, there is no historical Jesus. There is only the New Testament Jesus, a literary character created for us by the authors and editors of the New Testament. 

Which brings me back to Lucan muddles. Evidence of editorial fatigue in Luke that points toward his copying from Matthew militates against Q when you take into account the lack of anything pointing in the reverse direction. And that undermines any effort to discover a historical Jesus. With that in mind, I’ll continue to review some of the Lucan muddles that Michael Goulder and Mark Goodacre recount in Luke: A New Paradigm and Fatigue in the Synoptics.

Announcing Mark, Canonizer of Paul

October 20, 2012

I am pleased to announce that my new book, Mark, Canonizer of Paul, is now available from Amazon.com.

The back cover blurbs do a good job of briefly describing the book:

“For over 150 years the idea that Mark used the Pauline epistles has been recurring in New Testament research. Now in the work of Tom Dykstra, wide-ranging work and thoughtful, the truth of that idea emerges with a clarity it never had before.  The result is to give a fresh sense of the origin and nature of Mark, of all the New Testament books, and of the quest for history.” — Thomas Brodie, Director, Dominican Biblical Institute, author of The Birthing of the New Testament

“Tom Dykstra draws connections between Paul and the Gospel of Mark that are stunning, surprising, and original, and leave readers with a sense that the evidence deserves a better interpretation than traditional Synoptic models can offer. Well argued, easy to read, immersed in the relevant current exegetical discussion, the book fascinates, provokes, and encourages to think outside the box.” — David Trobisch, author of The First Edition of the New Testament

“In addition to its main focus on Mark, this book is a lucid introduction to early church history, oral tradition, the gospels’ genre, and how to understand scripture in general.” — Paul Nadim Tarazi, Professor of Biblical Studies, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, author of The New Testament: An Introduction: Paul and Mark

More Lucan Muddles—Editorial Fatigue in Passages Copied from Mark

October 11, 2012

Lucan muddles really become interesting or enlightening when you can use them to see how Luke has copied from and manipulated one of his sources. These are often called instances of “editorial fatigue” because the author edits a source as he starts to copy it into his own work, then attention wanes and he forgets to make corresponding changes as he copies the remainder of the source. Some clear cases where Luke made mistakes when copying from Mark will help illustrate the concept.

The Parable of the Sower

The parable of the sower appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matt 13:1-23 // Mark 4:1-20 // Luke 8:4-15), followed in each case by its interpretation.  In Luke the parable itself is in 8:5-8a:

A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.

The interpretation is in 8:11b-15:

The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.

If you focus on the rocky soil and its interpretation, you find three anomalies:

And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. (Luke 8:6)

And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. (Luke 8:13)

Three elements of the interpretation don’t seem to have corresponding elements in the parable.

  1. “Receive it with joy” in the interpretation presumes something more than just “as it grew up” in the parable. 
  2. “Have no root” in the interpretation corresponds vaguely at best to “had no moisture” in the parable.
  3. The “time of temptation” in the interpretation corresponds to nothing at all in the parable.

Now, you might be inclined to say that maybe the interpretation simply wasn’t meant to be exact – except that on all three points the parable and interpretation match perfectly in Mark:

Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and [1] immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and [3] when the sun rose it was scorched, and since [2] it had no root it withered away. (Mark 4:5-6)

And these . . . are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, [1] immediately receive it with joy; and [2] they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, [3] when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. (Mark 4:16-17)

In Mark each element of the interpretation has a corresponding element in the parable:

  1. “Receive it with joy” corresponds to “immediately it sprang up” in the parable.
  2. “Have no root in themselves”  corresponds to “had no root” in the parable
  3. “When tribulation or persecution arises” corresponds to “when the sun rose” in the parable.

The best explanation for the muddle in Luke is simply that he decided to condense a parable he found in Mark and forgot to make corresponding changes when he copied the interpretation from Mark. Besides showing Luke’s dependence on Mark rather than the reverse, this along with other muddles shows us something about Luke as an author:  keeping related but separate parts of his text consistent isn’t his top priority.

Through the Roof

Another example is in the story of the paralytic who was brought to Jesus by lowering him through a hole in a roof (Matt 9.1-8 // Mark 2.1-12 // Luke 5.17-26). In Luke we have a muddle because the men “bring in” the paralytic but there’s no word about what or where they are bringing him into:

On one of those days, as he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. And behold, men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they sought to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. (Luke 5:16-20)

In Mark it’s clear. Mark sets the stage (Jesus’ location in a house) and explains the reason for the strange approach (a crowd at the door):

. . . after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; . . . And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. (Mark 2:1-4)

In the continuation of this same story Luke’s editorial changes miss a beat and leave the reader in a muddle once again.  The scribes are openly questioning Jesus, but he accuses them of questioning “in their hearts”:

And when he saw their faith he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, `Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, `Rise and walk’? (Luke 5:21-23)

Once again, everything is consistent in Mark’s version:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? (Mark 5:5-9)

In this case, Luke changed Mark’s “questioning in their hearts” to “began to question, saying,” and this required him to change “Jesus, perceiving in his spirit . . .” to just “Jesus, perceiving . . .”, but he forgot to remove “in your hearts” from Jesus’ response.

These kinds of muddles make sense if Luke was copying from Mark. It is much more difficult to conceive of Luke writing these kinds of errors first and Mark correcting them, so they are powerful evidence that Mark wrote first and Luke used Mark as one of his sources. In my next post I’ll explain how similar muddles in texts coped from Matthew serve as evidence that Luke used Matthew as his other source, rather than Q. But before relating some of the many examples of those kinds of Lucan muddles, I’ll explain why it matters whether Luke’s other source besides Mark was Matthew or Q.

Lucan Muddles, Editorial Fatigue, and Q

October 9, 2012

“. . . it’s best to concede that Luke’s mind is not exact.”
– Michael Goulder

My father was sometimes inexact in how he expressed himself, which caused my mother to frequently advise her children to “Take a Dutchman as he means, not as he says.” We would do well to apply this principle to the evangelists as well as to those who trace their heritage to the Netherlands.

The Gospels are inexact at times, too. When something doesn’t seem to make sense, most of us tend to blame our imperfect knowledge of the text. Maybe the translator made a mistake, or maybe one of the ancient copyists made a mistake, or maybe the author assumed his readers would have background knowledge that we no longer have. But sometimes the key to making sense of a text is to recognize that the evangelists were human too. They made mistakes. They made quite a few mistakes. Luke in particular made so many mistakes that Michael Goulder coined the term “Lucan muddle” to describe them. (The examples in this series of posts com mostly from a book that may be considered his magnum opus, and which is cited at the end of the post.)

This does not imply any disrespect to Luke as an evangelist. It does imply recognition of Luke’s humanity in the sense that he was good at some things and not others. He was good at storytelling; he was not so good at making sure that the facts related in one part of his story were always consistent with facts related in other parts of his story. That being the case, Luke himself would have wanted us to understand his mistakes rather than gloss over them, because doing that is a way of “taking the evangelist as he means, not as he writes.”

This is the first post in a series about how Lucan muddles create difficulties for the two-source hypothesis. According to the two-source hypothesis, Mark wrote first, followed by Matthew and Luke, neither of whom was aware of the other’s Gospel. Therefore, passages in Matthew and Luke that are nearly word-for-word identical but are not found in Mark are assumed to come from a now-lost written source used by both Mark and Luke. Scholars have named this lost source Q. A few scholars doubt that anything like Q ever existed. Most of the doubters (of whom I am one) see the sequence as: Mark wrote first, then Matthew wrote using Mark as a source, then Luke wrote using Mark and Matthew as sources.

This is the first post in a series. In a later post I’ll explain why the presence of certain kinds of Lucan muddles, and the absence of corresponding Matthean muddles creates problems for those who believe in Q. But first I want to clarify what a muddle is by offering some examples that have nothing to do with Mark, Matthew, or the two-source hypothesis.


The first muddle comes early in the book. Zechariah is struck dumb because he doubts the prophecy that he will become the father of John the Baptist in his old age. Then when the time comes to name the child, his relatives use sign language to ask him what the child’s name should be – but Zechariah is only supposed to be dumb, not deaf.

And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” . . .
And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:19-20, 59-63)

Lucan muddles are often like this: fairly trivial, they don’t spoil the story line, and you wouldn’t even notice unless you were reading the text very closely.

Death Without Harm

In a particularly striking example, Jesus warns his disciples that some of them will be killed, then immediately thereafter promises that not a hair on their heads shall be harmed:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. (Luke 21:16-18)

Here too, it’s not hard to find a reconciliation, as Goulder observes: “He means ‘But you will come to no (ultimate) harm in God’s hands’: but that is not unfortunately what he has said.” (1989, 709)

Confusing the 12 and the 70

In another Last Supper remark, Jesus asks his 12 disciples, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” (Luke 22:35) to which they answer, “Nothing.” But it wasn’t the 12 he sent out with no purse or bag or sandals, it was the “seventy others”:

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. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. . . .” (Luke 10:1-4)

Arrogant Benefactors

Sometimes when Luke crosses his wires it is simply impossible to determine what it was he really meant to say, or why he said what he did say. At the last supper Jesus has to deal with a dispute among the disciples about who is the greatest. He cites the behavior of “the kings of the Gentiles” as an example not to follow; he advises his disciples to serve others rather than try to command others as Gentile kings do. In this context, adding a remark about the Gentile leaders being known as “benefactors” doesn’t fit:

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-26)

It is far from clear here why it would be a bad thing for the disciples to be called benefactors – the Greek εὐεργέται simply means “those who do good,” like the etymological meaning of its English translation. In any case, the phrase doesn’t make sense in a context where the emphasis is on the Gentiles’ arrogance.

Questioning the Judge

At Jesus’ trial we find a muddle that is not so much a case of internal inconsistency as it is an unrealistic portrayal of a historical situation. Jesus is being questioned by his judges, and one of his responses presumes that he is in the position of questioning them:

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their council, and they said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

The phrase “if I ask you, you will not answer” doesn’t make sense; as Goulder points out, “Judges do not expect to be cross-questioned in trials.” (1989, 112-13)

These are just a few representative instances out of a large number of muddles in Luke. In many cases it is possible to imagine a reconciliation, of course. But as Goulder puts it , “the evangelist makes us work” to do so, in ways that a more careful author would not (1989, 461). The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another example occurs in the passage where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” in order to clarify the Law’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The lawyer is asking who the Law commands him to act decently toward. But the parable and its concluding rhetorical question, the “neighbor” is the lawyer himself, not the person whom he is supposed to treat well. The three different people that the lawyer gets to choose from to define the meaning of “neighbor” are not in the role of neighbor in the original question but in the role of the person commanded to act. The story as a whole gets the basic “do good to anyone who needs it” message across, but the parable and its conclusion don’t fit the original question:

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” . . .
Jesus replied, “. . . Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29, 36)

Some commentators have tried to explain this as making some subtle theological point, but as Goulder points out, it is best interpreted as “simply a straightforward instance of Lucan muddle” like so many other such instances. (1989, 490)

Where recognizing muddles really makes a difference for interpreting the gospels is when they occur because of the ways in which Luke has copied material from his sources, in which case the phenomenon is often called “editorial fatigue.” In my next post I’ll start to explain some of those.

The references are to this book:

Goulder, Michael. 1989. Luke: A New Paradigm. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press. The opening quotation is from p.103.

How to Find Dirty Harry’s Truck

May 21, 2011

I had been hiking up to Dirty Harry’s Balcony and Dirty Harry’s Peak many times before I found mention on the web of the abandoned logging truck lost in the woods halfway up the mountain.  I found many people talking about having looked repeatedly for it without finding it, and the few who posted pictures told conflicting stories about how they found it.  So I armed myself with two of these stories and went up to see if it was all that difficult to find.  It wasn’t.  But the directions I found were not very clear, so here’s an alternative.

  1. Hike up the Dirty Harry trail past the cutoff to the balcony until you get to the year-round stream at around 3,000 foot elevation (everyone calls it Museum Creek but I’ve never seen it labeled as such on a map).
  2. About 15 yards or so before you get to the creek itself, strike off to the right through the bushes about where you see the old cable lying on the ground (see the picture below).
  3. Very soon (maybe 30 yards or less) you’ll come to an old somewhat-overgrown but very visible logging road. If you went left on this road you’d go downhill back to the creek. Go right and follow the road through a switchback, and the truck will be on your left.

Below is a picture of the main Dirty Harry trail as it approaches the creek. Go right before you get to the creek.

Go right before you get to the creek

When you first come to it, the truck is on the left on the other side of a stream (at least there was a stream when I was there on May 21).

First view of truck on the left as you come up the road

From the front, looking downhill with the stream on the left.

From the front

Another downhill view.

Another front view

Inside the cab.  There was supposed to be a geo-cache-like ammo box with a log for people to sign in, but it wasn’t there.

Inside the cab

Was not terribly successful at getting two dogs to move quickly through a rocky stream in order to beat the camera self-timer in time to pose nicely for a picture.

Me, Buck, and Cookie