Book Review: Revel and Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

January 7, 2014

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The Monk and the Philosopher shows how religious disputes can and should be conducted, with the utmost mutual respect and civility. The dialog in this book presents a head-on clash between radically different understandings of the nature of reality, with a very religious Buddhist monk (Matthieu Ricard) on one side and a very non-religious academic (Jean-Francois Revel) on the other. They happen to be father and son, but that can’t be the only reason for the courteous character of the debate. Disagreements like these often elicit expressions of disdain or frustration even within families.

Lately I’ve been following another religious dispute where some deny what others take as obvious self-evident truth, and the picture in that case is quite different. I’m speaking of the debate in print and online regarding whether Jesus existed a historical person or not. In that exchange many on each side vilify the other, blithely throwing out accusations of incompetence, ulterior motives, and even insanity. I’ll be publishing an article about that firestorm in the upcoming months. Those combatants are mostly either Christian or closely connected with Christianity. Does Buddhism inspire more civility and respectful behavior, and less self-defensive reactivity about beliefs, than does Christianity? Indeed, at one point in this book Revel suggests that historically, religious intolerance arose with monotheism (115). Whatever the explanation, this debate between a monk and a philosopher can be held up as a shining example of how to thoroughly yet respectfully probe and dissect an alien belief system.

Revel, the “philosopher” in this dialog, is not partial to any religion and is skeptical of any metaphysical beliefs, but he’s curious and open-minded. He’s skilled in asking the right questions and in calling out inconsistencies, convoluted logic, and fallacies  in the monk’s answers. He learns a lot about Buddhism in the process, and the reader of the book is along for the ride.

But I do not recommend this book as an introduction to Buddhism for someone who knows nothing about it. Like any major religion, there are many variants of Buddhism. Some Buddhists are more “religious” in the sense of devotion to metaphysical beliefs and ornate ritual practices. For others, Buddhism is a reservoir of practical wisdom for living a happy and fulfilling life, and a community of like-minded individuals who support you along that path. The monk in this dialog stands at the extreme religious end of the Buddhism spectrum, which creates one serious problem: he presents his variant of Buddhism as the only true Buddhism (and you thought it was only Christians who do that Smile). For example:

[Ricard] There is a school of Buddhism called the ‘Mind Only’ school which says that, in the final analysis, only consciousness exists, and everything else is a projection of consciousness. But it’s a monism that’s been refuted within Buddhism itself. (120-1)

The other school of thought was “refuted” and thus is to be dismissed as a heretical sect. Ricard’s branch of Buddhism that refuted the other one is “Buddhism itself” or the only true Buddhism.

Throughout the book, Ricard uses phrases like “Buddhism speaks of …” and “according to Buddhism …” but when he does so you can never tell for sure if the statement really pertains across the board to Buddhism writ large or applies just to his own variant or what he himself considers to be normative Buddhism.

Ricard never uses phrases such as “I believe …” or “Buddhism believes ….”  He avoids the word “believe” like the plague because he considers his beliefs to be knowledge based on “evidence” gained from “contemplative experience.” He talks this way about what most of us would consider highly speculative metaphysical beliefs, such as reincarnation, streams of consciousness passing through people and things from one life to another, people suffering now from the result of things they did in a prior life, and so forth. Anyone who is inclined to see Buddhism as not a religion will be disabused of that notion by reading this book. Ricard is as tightly tied to an extensive metaphysical belief system as is any Christian priest, prelate, or seminary professor.

One of those core beliefs is reincarnation. I’ve always wondered: if there is no self, what is reincarnated?  I’ve read books by learned Buddhists explaining the doctrine but have never found it explained in a way that makes sense. Revel sees this problem too and drills into the same logical inconsistency. Ricard is unable to address it and tries to skirt the issue.  This exchange is a great example of how one of them tries to evade a question and the other can see the evasion, makes a very respectful attempt to call it out, and good humoredly abandons the line of argument when he sees his interlocutor has no good answer.

[Ricard] First of all, it’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some ‘entity’ or other. It’s not a process of metempsychosis because there is no ‘soul’. … Over successive rebirths, what is maintained is not the identity of a ‘person’, but the conditioning of a stream of consciousness.

[Revel] But doesn’t metempsychosis exist in Buddhism? I thought the migration of souls was one of its most basic doctrines.

[Ricard] Buddhism speaks of successive states of existence; in other words, everything isn’t limited to just one lifetime. We’ve experienced other states of existence before our birth in this lifetime, and we’ll experience others after death. … Moreover, since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together.

[Revel] That’s pretty hard to understand.

[Ricard] In fact, it’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.

[Revel] A series of reincarnations without any definite entity that reincarnates? More and more mysterious. (30-1)

How to explain evil is another area in which Ricard’s Buddhism doesn’t have a good answer to one of Revel’s questions.  When Ricard’s response dances around the question without answering it directly, Revel lets that slide and simply responds to what Ricard’s response does say.

[Revel] If man’s essentially ‘good’, how can you explain that there’s so much violence in the world?

[Ricard] The idea of man’s true nature can be understood as a state of balance, while violence is a state of imbalance. The proof that violence isn’t part of man’s deep-seated nature is that it causes suffering in both victim and perpetrator. Man’s deepest wish is for happiness. … No murderer has ever felt even the slightest peace of feeling of fulfillment after indulging his hatred by killing — at most there’s sometimes a rather short  and unhealthy feeling of jubilation. In the longer term, it’s quite the contrary – murderers often find themselves in a state of profound confusion and anguish that sometimes leads them to suicide.
It’s also possible to become desensitized to crime … Isn’t it said of inveterate killers that ‘there’s nothing human left in them’? …

[Revel] I’m personally a bit less optimistic than you are about the remorse of great criminals pushing them to the point of suicide. Remember that Stalin, Mao, and Franco all died in bed, and Hitler killed himself because he’d been beaten – not at all because he felt the slightest remorse for the crimes he’d committed. … (180-1)

Revel goes on to offer his own answer to the question.  You might not agree with him, but at least it’s a direct answer. Ricard doesn’t put Revel’s view down but just puts in a plug for his own.

[Revel] I’m very pessimistic about the eradication of evil. Unlike Rousseau, I believe that humans are bad and that it’s society that makes them good, as long as society is constituted according to law. From time to time, some types of society can make man a little less bad. Why? Because evil’s irrational.

[Ricard] And against nature, too. (181)

On the other hand sometimes Revel has no good answer to a query from Ricard. In such cases he’s up front about it, and Ricard doesn’t gloat. The exchange regarding the meaning of life is an example. Revel openly admits he doesn’t have a solution. He asserts that there are three main ways that people in the West find meaning in life:  philosophy, religion, and utopian social revolution. He asserts that the second two of these have lost their power to provide meaning. Social utopias such as communism have failed, and so has religion:

[Revel] Well, of the three ways of finding some meaning in it all, religions, or at any rate Western religions, are simply no longer truly practiced. … It’s no longer possible to maintain that the hope of an afterlife can compensate for social suffering, unemployment and the disorientation of youth. There are no longer any priests who can go and gather together the young on the public housing developments and tell them that if they’re good they’ll be spared two years of purgatory. That doesn’t work anymore, it’s over. … (294)

To Revel all that’s left today is philosophy, and that has a fatal flaw:

[Revel] So what’s left? A return to wisdom according to the good old recipes of the past. …

[Ricard] In the end, we more or less agree that what gives meaning to life isn’t just an improvement in material conditions, as we’re not just machines. Nor is it just some rules of conduct, as a façade alone isn’t enough. It’s a transformation of our being through wisdom.

[Revel] Not quite. I believe that all the systems of wisdom with which we try to make life bearable have their limits. The biggest limit of all is death. … That always brings us back to the fundamental difference between wisdom doctrines or quests for life’s meaning with a secular connotation and those with a religious one.

[Ricard] … if you find the wisdom that gives meaning to this present life, the same wisdom will give meaning to future lives. …

[Revel] … But I still think, all the same, that there’s a huge difference between that attitude [focusing on the present] and the idea that your existence can be prolonged into future lives. That implies a totally different view of the cosmos.

[Ricard] … Giving meaning to life through wisdom and inner transformation is to achieve something outside time, just as valid in the present as it will be in the future, whatever that might be.

[Revel] What you say is doubtless true for Buddhism, which isn’t a religion based solely on the hope of an afterlife. But it’s obvious that a Muslim only lives in the idea that he’ll go to Paradise if he respects the divine law. Like all Christians by definition, whether Catholics or Protestants. … (295-7)

After some more give and take Revel states plainly what he believes is possible and its limits:

[Revel] I don’t believe in the immortality of the soul so I actually don’t think any true fulfillment’s possible. I don’t think that any human being who knows himself or herself to be mortal and who doesn’t believe in an afterlife can experience a feeling of total fulfillment. Relatively, perhaps, it’s possible, in terms of some temporary objectives that don’t rule out a degree of consummation. But I think that complete solutions to the meaning of life simply don’t exist — outside the great transcendent solutions, whether religious, para-religious, or political, in which I myself can’t believe.

[What is feasible is what] I’d call the wisdom of resignation, which doesn’t mean one of sadness, and is based on the opposite idea – the feeling that this limited life is all we have. It’s a wisdom of acceptance, and consists of building oneself up in this present life using whatever means are the least unreasonable, the least unjust, and the least unethical, but knowing perfectly well nonetheless that it’s only a temporary episode. (298)

He ends this whole discussion not by asserting the last word in the argument or by discounting anything Ricard has said, but with a good-natured expression that they have agreed to disagree. To Ricard’s final statement asserting that “Buddhism adheres to the idea of a continuity of successive states of existence …” Revel responds:

[Revel] Well, there you are. And since your hypothesis is more optimistic than mine, I’m sure our readers will feel better if I let you have the last word. (299)

The book covers a wide variety of topics, and these are just a few representative examples of the character of the dialog. My overall assessment of what I learned from the dialog parallels that of Revel:

[Revel] I have become more and more appreciative of Buddhism as a system of wisdom, and more and more skeptical about it as a system of metaphysics. (301)

Many Christian theologians leave me amazed at how much metaphysical drivel they can write with absolute confidence in the rightness of their beliefs, but it somehow seems out of place in Buddhism. Of course I have seen that before in some Buddhist writings, but it stands out starkly here in the light of cross-examination by an incisive interlocutor.

Nevertheless, I also agree with Ricard’s approach to assessing the value of any “system of wisdom” or religion:

[Ricard] Once we are committed to a spiritual path, it is essential to check that over the months and years we are actually freeing ourselves from hatred, grasping, pride, jealousy and above all from the ego-centeredness and ignorance that cause them. That is the only result that counts. (309)

The instructor of a meditation class I once took had a similar answer for the question of what’s the point of meditating and how do you know if you’re actually accomplishing anything by meditating: she said that you judge your success by whether or not you’re becoming a kinder person.

Buddhism as a way of life helps take you in that direction, and the metaphysical beliefs such as they are don’t hinder that. The story seems to be more mixed for Christianity. Revel has a point about monotheism: there’s a tendency in monotheistic religions such as Christianity for people to develop a degree of intolerance for other viewpoints, more so than in Buddhism. But that’s another topic for another time.

If you’re interested in Buddhism or in discussions of religion and the meaning of life in general, you can hardly go wrong reading this book. But if you’re new to Buddhism, be aware that there is much more diversity within Buddhism than Ricard would lead you to believe.


Announcing Hallowed Be Thy Name

October 5, 2013

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This month my new book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Name-Glorifying Dispute in the Russian Orthodox Church and on Mt. Athos, 1912-1914 was published.  The book tells the story of a theological controversy in the Russian Orthodox church that was resolved by means of fist fights, bayonets, fire hoses, and the exile and imprisonment of those who defied church authority. 

Bruce Clark, writer on religion and public policy for the Economist magazine, has this to say about it:

For anyone wanting to understand an extraordinary and important episode in the modern history of Christianity, Tom Dykstra’s excellent account, which is both meticulous and highly readable, should be an indispensable starting-point. It brings alive a passionate argument over the holiness of the Name of God which shook the Tsarist and Balkan world on the eve of the first world war. Better than any other chronicler of the tragedy that came to a head in the main monastic stronghold of the Christian East, he combines a clear view of the theological stakes with a keen sense of the politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, which determined the outcome. Dykstra also manages to situate the Imperial Russian quarrel over sacred names in the broader sweep of the history of monotheism.

The book begins by describing one of the episodes in the history of the name-glorifying controversy:

On July 3, 1913 some four hundred monks of the Athonite monastery of St. Panteleimon fled to one of their dormitory buildings and set to work barricading the entrances with bed boards. Bayoneted rifles in hand, sailors of the Russian Imperial Navy surrounded the building while their officers exhorted the unarmed monks to give up peacefully. To no avail. Prepared for martyrdom but hoping in God’s help, the monks sang, prayed, did prostrations, and took up icons and crosses to defend themselves. Finally the trumpet rang out with the command to “shoot,” and the calm of the Holy Mountain was rent by the roar … not of firearms, but of fire hoses. After an hour-long “cold shower” dampened the monks’ spirits, the sailors rushed the building and began to drag recalcitrant devotees of the contemplative life out of the corridors. (p.13)

Another episode is described colorfully by an eyewitness:

They began to drag out of this heap [of fighting monks] one person at a time into the corridor, where the brotherhood stood in two lines, receiving the booty and passing it (Jeromeites) on: one by the hair another by the side and with a command, another they would beat for something to teach him a lesson. In this way they brought them to the stairs and then they let them down the stairs variously as each pleased: some went head first and some went feet first, counting the steps with the back of their head. They led them to the church square, then ceremoniously took them by the hand and led them out the gate.  (p.91)

As I explain in the preface, the controversy described here persists to the present day:

This year is the 100th anniversary of the most sensational events in this story, the expulsion of the Russian monks from Mount Athos. But the publication of this account is timely for other reasons as well. After lying dormant for decades, the theological controversy behind the tragic events that happened in the early twentieth century has re-ignited within the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Church hierarchs can no longer command military forces to rout their theological opponents by means of fire hoses and bayonets, but the hostility expressed today over the Internet matches what was expressed earlier in ecclesiastical journals.  One need only do an internet search for the keyword “name-worshiping” to find several web sites and web pages that decry in no uncertain terms the 100-year old “heresy.”  For that reason, the publication now of this account is especially appropriate because it puts a human face on the “heretics” and offers a sympathetic interpretation of the “heresy.” (p.xi)

The book is an adaptation of a Master’s thesis written at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1988. It remains the most comprehensive account on the subject written in English.


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

December 25, 2012

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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.