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Post Info TOPIC: Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?1 A Response to Bart Ehrman By Thomas L. Thompson


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Is This Not the Carpenter’s Son?1 A Response to Bart Ehrman By Thomas L. Thompson
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A Response to Bart Ehrman

 

 



 

Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion, which was rooted in a wide-ranging, comparative literary classification and analysis of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity’leaves me unqualified and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels.



See Also:

Your Mother was a Hittite and Your Father an Amorite

On the Problem of Critical Scholarship: A Memoire

Creating Biblical Figures

A View from Copenhagen: Israel and the History of Palestine



By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
July 2012

 

Bart Ehrman has recently dismissed what he calls mythicist scholarship, my Messiah Myth2 from 2005 among them, as anti-religious motivated denials of a historical Jesus and has attributed to my book arguments and principles which I had never presented, certainly not that Jesus had never existed.3 Rather than dealing with the historicity of the figure of Jesus, my book had argued a considerably different issue, which, however, might well raise problems for many American New Testament scholars who historicize what was better understood as allegorical. Rather than a book on historicity, my The Messiah Mythoffered an analysis of the thematic elements and motifs of a particular myth, which had a history of at least 2000 years. This included a discussion of the Synoptic Gospels’ theological reiteration that Samaritan and Jewish scriptures had their roots in an allegorically driven discourse on a large number of dominant ancient Near Eastern literary themes and concerns, most of which were tied to ancient royal ideology. Ehrman pompously ignores my considerable analytical discussion, which was rooted in a wide-ranging, comparative literary classification and analysis of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. Apparently to him, the more than 40 years I have devoted to research in my study of the primary fields of Old Testament exegesis, ancient Near Eastern literature and ancient history—not least in regards to questions of historicity—leaves me unqualified and lacking the essential competence to address such questions because they also come to include a comparison of such an analysis with these same stereotypical literary tropes as they occur in the Gospels. I can understand that Ehrman may have some disagreement with my analysis and my conclusions. My introduction takes up the notoriously stereotypical figure of Jesus as (mistaken) eschatological prophet, which Ehrman—himself reiterating Schweitzer—asserts as, somehow, obviously historical. His lack of reflection on ancient forms of allegory, such as that reflected by Qohelet’s—and indeed Philo’s—principle that—in their world of theologically driven literature—there is little new under the sun, certainly provides adequate grounds for considerable disagreement, which I welcome. It is puzzling, however, that he seems sincerely unaware of the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern thematic elements which are comparable to those of the Gospels: pivotal motifs such as “the one chosen by god,” the “inaugural announcement of the divine kingdom,” and “the good news” of that kingdom’s saving reversals, which offer a utopian hope to the poor and oppressed, the widow and the orphan. He even seems to ignore the stereotypical implications of the royal figure of a conquering messiah—which historical kings have indeed used in their “biographies.” Such an ancient theme as “life’s victory over death” gets its first treatment in the Gospels in a reiteration of the stories of Elisha. Surely, this is not news to him—anymore than he can be unaware of the Gospel reiterations of the “eternal need to crush the head of the evil one,” so central to the St. George myth—though no less central to an understanding of Jesus in the Gospels. Such narratively embraced themes can hardly be understood as providing historical evidence for any figure of the ancient world; this has always been the stuff other than the historical. Why has he written such a diatribe as Did Jesus Exist? And having decided to write it: why didn’t he take his title seriously and attempt to give a reasonable argument concerning his conviction that he did?

I think a less polemically minded Bart Ehrman would recognize that this project on reiterated narrative, based in an analysis of comparative literature, can only be furthered by one who is familiar with Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern literature.4Nevertheless, his crude dismissal of the relevance of inter-disciplinary perspectives undermines my confidence that he understands the problems related to the historicity of a literary figure, except from a historicist—even fundamentalist—perspective. Although the irritation provoked by his misreading of my work, which I had published—fully aware that I was entering territory not my own—in “fear and trembling” at the prospect of detailed objections from just such a Brahmin of New Testament studies. At the same time, I must admit that I am pleased that such a well-known scholar has so clearly demonstrated, for all to see, the need—and therefore justification—for Tom Verenna’s and my little volume of essays, which will appear in the coming week or two, which deals with the very issue of the historicity of the New Testament figure of Jesus, which Bart Ehrman so thoroughly has misunderstood. This new book does deal with historicity: what we know about a historical Jesus and what we do not. The volume tries to make a virtue of the interdisciplinary approach and some of the contributions are written by quite well known, but interesting and well qualified historians and exegetes on the question of evidence and historical warrant for which Ehrman and some of his colleagues have taken for granted, assuring us that they possess more than what is adequate in the Albrightean “top drawers of their writing desks.” The book includes a discussion of the basis for our knowing or not knowing that this figure of New Testament literature had, in fact, lived in a historical Palestine of the first century, CE. It also includes essays dealing with the various possibilities of evidence for Jesus’ existence which may be implied in Paul’s writings, as well as, other, differently nuanced questions which scholars are asking today, including, alternative avenues for exploring the New Testament literature and its historicity. All of these articles, I believe, impinge closely on the nature of first and second century Samaritanism and Judaism, and, with that, its influence on the historical origins of Christianity.

Ehrman has asserted that the present state of New Testament scholarship is such that an established scholar should present his Life of Jesus, without considering whether this figure, in fact, lived as a historical person. The assumptions implied reflect a serious problem regarding the historical quality of scholarship in biblical studies—not least that which presents itself as self-evidently historical-critical. I wrote my monograph of 2005 in an effort to explore the continuity of a limited number of themes which were rooted in ancient Near Eastern royal ideology5 —an issue which is not only marginally related to questions of historicity, but one which also has much to say about the perception of history and historical method among modern scholars. I am, accordingly, very pleased that Thomas Verenna and I can offer this response to Ehrman’s unconscionable attack on critical scholarship in so timely a manner. It is a small book, and its ambitions are few: hardly more than to point out that our warrant for assuming the existence of a historical Jesus has important limits. In the course of that statement, I hope that readers will find some very interesting, new avenues of research being explored.

 


Notes

1 I respond here to B. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazereth (New York: Harper and Collins, 2012), with reference to the forthcoming: T. L. Thompson and T. S. Verenna (eds.), Is This Not the Carpenter? through the Copenhagen International Seminar (Sheffield: Equinox, July, 2012).

2 T. L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of David and Jesus (New York: Basic Books/ London: Jonathan Cape/ Pimlico, 2005/2006).

3 Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? 336-37.

4 This is not quite as foreign to mainstream New Testament scholarship as Ehrman asserts in his book. See, for example, the discussion and bibliography in T. L. Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2004).

5 T. L. Thompson, “Kingship and the Wrath of God: Or Teaching Humility,” Revue Biblique109 (2002), 161-196; idem, “Historiography in the Pentateuch: 25 Years after Historicity,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 13 (1999), 258-83.



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Comments (30)

 

 
I'm starting to think all this discourse in the biblical field is really just marketing driven polemics designed to sale books.
#1 - Jordan Wilson - 07/06/2012 - 04:30



 
What exactly is the point at issue between you and Ehrman?
#2 - Martin - 07/08/2012 - 19:44



 
In referring to the existence of a historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth as an "assumption" rather than a historical conclusion, Thompson is either siding with the mythicists, or trying to have his cake and eat it too, or ignoring what Ehrman wrote, or some combination of the above. In writing about this topic, Thompson had a wonderful opportunity to clarify his own position and distance himself from those internet crackpots sometimes referred to as "mythicist" who comment on matters of history about which they are inadequately informed, engage in extremes of parallelomania which seem like a parody of the worst examples of scholarship from a bygone era, and in other ways do something that would be helpful in relation to this subject. That opportunity seems to me to have been squandered.
#3 - James F. McGrath - 07/10/2012 - 02:50



 
Dear James McGrath,
In an article ('The Historiography of the Pentateuch: 25 Years after Historicity' Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 13, 1999, 258-283) I have discussed why I think it is very difficult to establish the historicity of figures in biblical narrative, as the issue rather relates to the quality of texts one is dealing with. I work further on this issue in my Messiah Myth of 2005. Here I argue that the synoptic gospels can hardly be used to establish the historicity of the figure of Jesus; for both the episodes and sayings with which the figure of Jesus is presented are stereotypical and have a history that reaches centuries earlier. I have hardly shown that Jesus did not exist and did not claim to. Rather, I compared our knowledge about Jesus to our knowledge of figures like Homer. As soon as we try to identify such an historical figure, we find ourselves talking about the thematic elements of stories.
I do not distance myself from 'mythicists' as I do not see this term as referring to any scholars I know.
Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#4 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/10/2012 - 09:11



 
Logicians say that 'existence is not a predicate' - a point that comes up in certain discussions of God's existence. An existence claim seems to depend for its meaning on the descriptions attached to the whatever (whoever) is said to exist. At that rate 'X existed' would mean that a substantial number of the things said about 'X' were true of the same person. 'X existed' is thus a rather weak or slight claim, since we may not be at all sure which of the things said were true and will be aware that there could be very significant omissions, exaggerations and falsehoods mixed in with the true statements. The very fact that the claim that 'Jesus existed' is by itself so slight makes me think that it's not worth very much dispute and might as well be assumed for the purposes of a discussion about what we can with good reason assert about Jesus. There's nothing wrong with assumptions, ie points for which one does not for the moment argue.
#5 - Martin - 07/10/2012 - 12:50



 
Thomas, I am happy to hear that you do not place any scholarly views, including your own, into the category of the internet-based and self-published mythicists, and likewise do not consider the views of the latter scholarship.

You perhaps do not recall us having a conversation on a list-serv about the differences between the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible when it comes to matters of history and oral tradition. The amount of time that passed between when the events allegedly took place and their first being mentioned in writing is much shorter in the New Testament than in the case of the Hebrew Bible. Already in Paul's letters, we learn that he had met Jesus' brother and was aware of at least some key details about him - that he was Jewish (born of a woman, like all other human beings, and born under the Law), that he was crucified, bled and died, and was buried. We do not have a comparable situation with respect to the Hebrew Bible, in which we have good reason to conclude that an author was in contact with a relative of a key figure within a decade of his death, do we?

The point I took away from your book is that Jesus is presented through the lens of and in stereotypes derived from the already-existing mythology related to the Davidic anointed one. No mainstream historian should deny that, and to my knowledge none of them do. But this point seems to me relevant to the present discussion precisely because one of the major reasons that for thinking that there was a historical Jesus, other than those I've already mentioned, is the fact that those sources which narrate stories about him contain things which it is hard to imagine anyone concocting if their aim was to tell a story of someone who fit the expectations about precisely such a Davidic anointed one.
#6 - James F. McGrath - 07/10/2012 - 15:19



 
Well, dear McGrath,

years ago with my students in Damascus, we were paid a visit by a so-called liberal imam. He had been member of a commitee for twenty years discussing whether the Quran was the work of man or the word of God. Surprise, they came out with the result that it was the word of God because no human person could invent such stories. Your last argument only says that you cannot imagine something. Don't make biblical authors your hostages.

This does not mean that I say that Jesus never existed. Why not "the carpenter's son". But stories told about him belongs, as Tom correctly states, among literary tropes found in many other ANE texts, for not to speak of also classical literature.

The time where we normally put Jesus was infested by a long series of Messiahs. Monty Pyton got it right in Life of Brian: The holy sandal! Acts also has a list of such messiah's. Maybe Jesus was somebody who was selected by a certain Jewish messianic movement and made into their Messiah! (meaning that Jesus did not have the Christian party book number one).

NPLemche
#7 - Niels Peter Lemche - 07/10/2012 - 16:34



 
Dear Martin,
What you argue here is very close to what I concluded when I decided to write the article I referred to in 1999. The issue of a narrative figure's historicity does not do very much and is in the end not so important. For instance, if one reads the Gilgamesh epic, one really does not learn very much about the one-time king of Uruk. Nor does recognizing that this figure may have been historical help us to understand the figure of Gilgamesh in his story. For me, the question of Jesus' historicity does not help me understand the New Testament and its significance any better. Quite the contrary, as long as I am taken up with that question, I find I cannot understand what the gospels are about. As my first interests as an exegete are to understand the texts we have, I find the question of historicity a hindrance to a sincerely critical understanding.

One might well, as you say, just as well assume that the figure of the gospels may be historical. However, I hardly see any warrant for doing so and the stories we have about this figure clearly do not tell us anything that happened in history, such an assumption simply guarantees that we misunderstand the texts we read.

Sincerely,
Thomas 

Thomas L. Thompson 
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#8 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/10/2012 - 18:42



 
Dear James McGrath,
You misuse my remarks about your presentation of mysticism. I do not deal with it--and am neither negative nor positive about it. Normally, I work with what is going in biblical scholarship and generally do not have any opinion about bloggers--whether or not you disagree with them.
You are quite right that I do not recall our previous discussion, but I am aware of the difference of such a question in regard to the New Testament and it is therefore that I have been involved in publishing the book with Thomas Verenna Is This Not the Carpenter? which takes up the issues you refer to.
In choosing elements which might deal well with questions of whether the narratives reflect historical realities, I purposely chose elements which New Testament scholars saw as unequivocally historical--taking up the Jesus seminar's certain ipsissima verba of Jesus. I think I have shown that they are obviously not what these scholars have claimed.

Now you suggest that there may be other things. Please give me references and the publication references for your discussion.

Thomas
Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#9 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/10/2012 - 19:01



 
Dr. Thompson:

Thanks for your in effect it seems, critique of the Criterion of Embarrassment; the idea that if we cannot imagine how something fits our expected models, it must be true. Which I add in effect on McGrath's blog, deifies or enshrines ignorance itself. 

McGrath seems rather polite here. But in his blog he conforms to more rough-and-insulting format of the Internet. Referring to your blogpost here as a sort of rant or "diatribe":

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/07/an-odd-diatribe-from-thomas-l-thompson.html#disqus_thread

I often wonder whether religious scholars don't confess to outright Mythicism or atheism or agnosticism, just to avoid the traditional abuse by zealots.

Thanks in any case for your very calm and reasoned response.
#10 - Brettongarcia - 07/10/2012 - 20:05



 
Dr. Thompson is correct in noting the gospels are not very useful for telling us about Jesus the person. He may overstate the case, though; as I find that legendary, material often says a lot about the reality that inspired them. Thompson should not take too much offense at Ehrman’s comments on him. Thompson does seem sympathetic to the notion Jesus did not exist and so his assumption is understandable, and he doesn’t so much dispute the idea the gospels are derived from earlier material, but simply doubts, as dose Thompson apparently, that they relate to the question of whether Jesus was inspired by a man named Jesus or if he is a pure invention. I think the rest of Ehrman’s book should convince Thompson of the soundness of the hypothesis that Jesus of the gospels was based on a preacher named Jesus.
#11 - michael Wilson - 07/11/2012 - 06:05



 
Dear Mr.Brettongarcia,

Thanks much for your note. I found the address you kindly attached a bit unstable. I think part of the problem is that direct questions about the historicity of a person who may have lived in the ancient world are quite problematic. On the one hand, we know of any given person of such a distant past only through sources; so that if our question is to be asked systematically, it needs to question the historicity of whatever sources we might have: a formidable question when it deals with a figure of traditional narrative, transmitted from the past. A conclusion that we are warranted in judging such a figure as historical is no stronger than the sources it is based on. A negative statement, however, that such a figure did not exist, cannot be reached: only that we have no warrant for making such a figure part of our history.
Criteria such as 'multiple attestation', 'embarrassment' or the assertion of sources we do not have and can not examine, such as 'Q' or oral tradition are hardly legitimate historical criteria. Proper historical argument must begin in an acknowledgment of what we don't know about the past. Only then can we begin to explore what we really do know.
My own interests in the figure of Jesus centers in the literature in which this figure appears and how it functions within the structure of comparative literature. I am of course aware that many scholars are directly interested in issues of the historicity of this figure,within the context of Roman period Judaism or the historical beginnings of Christianity, but my Messiah Myth is only tangential to such questions; namely in its interest in how the figure of Jesus reiterates ancient Near Eastern thematic elements of the good king.
Though not directly related to the historicity of the figure of Jesus, this research does affect how we understand the construct of such an historical Jesus--the concern for orphans and widows and the lame and the blind, for example.

Sincerely,
Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#12 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/11/2012 - 08:37



 
Dear colleagues,
Tomorrow morning I travel to Erfurt for the Society of Samaritan Studies congress and thereafter to Amsterdam for the EABS and SBL congresses--altogether some 2 1/2 weeks. I will try to follow with any discussions, but please have patience.
Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#13 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/11/2012 - 19:01



 
It is heartening to see in the discussion above Thomas L Thompson getting to what is surely the core of the historical enterprise itself -- i.e. understanding and explaining the evidence as we have it rather than trying to argue for or against the historicity of a person behind a literary figure within that evidence. 

First understand the nature of what we are reading, and how this evidence we have helps us understand Christian origins. 

The question of whether Jesus is an historical figure or not is surely a secondary one and can only be validly approached after we fully grasp the nature of our evidence. 

But so much historical Jesus scholarship appears to have plunged into the question of Jesus with untested assumptions that the evidence must necessarily be a gateway to such a figure. To an outsider like me it appears that NT scholars are not always talking to one another. Those that are specializing in explaining the sorts of documents the gospels are so often appear to get only half a nod among those who are confidently using them as source material for constructs external to their narratives.
#14 - Neil Godfrey - 07/12/2012 - 03:49



 
I think it is important to note that a principled historical agnosticism - saying that given the evidence, there is little if anything that we can be certain about, rather like other comparable figures such as Socrates or John the Baptist or Hillel - is something that most historians can understand, even if they consider it likely that there was a historical Jesus. This is a very different stance than the mythicists who are the focus of Bart Ehrman's book, and who consider that it is more likely that Jesus did not exist, and who make claims that simply do not fit the evidence, such as that Paul believed that Jesus had been born of a woman, crucified and buried in a celestial realm.
#15 - James F. McGrath - 07/13/2012 - 04:01



 
"I think it is important to note that a principled historical agnosticism... is something that most historians can understand, even if they consider it likely that there was a historical Jesus. This is a very different stance than the mythicists who are the focus of Bart Ehrman's book..."

This line of thinking is very reminiscent of the preacher who says that he can respect the position of the agnostic toward God, even if he considers it likely there is a God (his). But this, the preacher imagines, is a very different thing from the atheist who says there's no evidence for God. But the only real difference is that he perceives no threat to his faith by agnostics. 

Being agnostic toward the historical Jesus includes the possibility that he was a mythical figure by definition, just as agnosticism toward God includes the possibility that God does not exist.
#16 - Blood - 07/14/2012 - 02:01



 
Too be sure, countless scholars have properly seen Christianity as partially rooted in Judaism ... but then departing from it in significant ways too. In particular, many see Christianity developing, distinguishing itself to some degree from Judaism, in especially Hellenisitic, dualistic Platonistic ways. Christianity adding to Judaism, strong elements of the Platonistic idea that material realities were unimportant; and that only mental or "spiritual" things, spiritual ideals, were important.

These spiritual, non-material elemeents y Plato and others exist traditionally, in the form of "Ideals" or "Ideas" - "models" as Paul said - in "Heaven." Or as Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism proper eventually said, in the "celestial" realm. 

Christianity was largely rooted in Judaism. But eventually it broke away from it, to become what most would see as a different religion. Interestingly to be sure, the Platonistic/cosmic side of Christianity, ight be seen as some as perhaps its most significant departure from traditional Judaism. 

So that many might see the condemnation of Platonistic/Gnostic over-spirituality, to be a way of returning more to Jewish roots. And repairing the old rift between Judaism, and Christianity.
#17 - Woodbridge Goodman - 07/14/2012 - 08:42



 
Sorry, what was traditional Judaism around 30-40 CE? If you intend to say Rabbinic Judaism as it evolved after 70 CE, it may make sense, but not a generation before where there were several versions of Judaism around. Jesus from Nazareth was certainly not the only who was claimed to be Messiah. Eschatology abounded and other funny things. The last Jewish Messiah was probably Bar Kochba. After him I guess that Jewish Gelehrter decided to skip this idea about messianism and similar phenomena. That's why--as I understand it--some scholars are discussion the possibility of the place of Daniel in the LXX as the original one, but later, in the HB, this book was placed among the Ketuvim. It would make sense.

But is is definitely true that Christianity had some ideas that could not be part of Judaism in any form. My favorite is the Eucharist: We eat God and drink his blood!

NPLemche
#18 - Niels Peter Lemche - 07/14/2012 - 16:40



 
Dear Godfrey,
I apologize for the long silence, but I am just today back from the EABS congress in Amsterdam. While I was there, I had no time to check for responses. I wholeheartedly agree with you that when our questions are about texts, our first and necessary question is about what they mean and what their literary function is. Ín this regard, I am uncertain that the gospels really tell us of Christian origins. Paul does, I think, but, literarily, his theological tracts are not so close to the gospels that we can speak of them as creative of this particular mythic narrative. No sustained tradition of scholarship has yet successfully argued that the gospels are 
dependent on Paul. 

Origin traditions are hardly historical--if for no other reason that if one really wishes to speak of the origins of a people or something so comprehensive as Christianity or Judaism, one must begin to discuss historical realities which are not yet Christian or Jewish. Our question is not like the question of the origins of Mormonism. 

Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#19 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/28/2012 - 19:30



 
Dear James McGrath,
I am not sure why you wrote your comment, as I an not a principled historical agnostic nor a mythicist, though perhaps you and Bart Ehrman think so. I am an historian and am quite certain about many things. I find it both amusing and puzzling that you think biblical texts are so easy to understand. Please tell me why you think me a mythicist.
Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen


I think it is important to note that a principled historical agnosticism - saying that given the evidence, there is little if anything that we can be certain about, rather like other comparable figures such as Socrates or John the Baptist or Hillel - is something that most historians can understand, even if they consider it likely that there was a historical Jesus. This is a very different stance than the mythicists who are the focus of Bart Ehrman's book, and who consider that it is more likely that Jesus did not exist, and who make claims that simply do not fit the evidence, such as that Paul believed that Jesus had been born of a woman, crucified and buried in a celestial realm.
#20 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/28/2012 - 20:00



 
Dear Goodman Woodbridge,
I do not see Judaism of the first and early second century as essentially different from Judaism. At the same time I see both of these Jewish traditions as separating from each other in the course of the 2nd century.

Thomas 
¨
Thomas L. Thompson
professor emeritus University of Copenhagen
#21 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/28/2012 - 20:09



 
Thomas, Thank you for the clarification. It is unfortunate that the frequent quotation of your work by mythicists has led to your being thought of as somehow of the same viewpoint as theirs. Those of us who know mythicist tactics should know better than to conclude that the way mythicists portray a scholar's work bears any true resemblance to what that scholar argues. I do apologize if at any point I made the error of giving them any credence, when I really ought to know better by now!

Best wishes,

James
#22 - James F. McGrath - 07/28/2012 - 20:46



 
Dear Mr. McGrath,
I know nothing of the abuse of my work by what you call "mythicists". The abuse I objected to in my remarks on Bible and Interpretation was entirely Bart Ehrman's. I do not understand why you wish to demonize individuals by this term "mythicists". It is not only misleading, but surely you well know that they do not have a singular understanding of our problems on the historicity of the figure of Jesus. They are individuals and their ideas should be given with citations or references to what they in fact variously have concluded or argued.
Thomas 

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#23 - Thomas L. Thompson - 07/29/2012 - 22:09



 
Please let me correct myself. I wrote to Goodman Woodbridge: "I do not see Judaism of the first and early second century as essentially different from Judaism. At the same time I see both of these Jewish traditions as separating from each other in the course of the 2nd century." Indeed I intended to write: "I do not see Judaism of the first and early second century as essentially different from Judaism, etc,"

I apologize if I have caused any confusion or misunderstanding.-
Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#24 - Thomas L. Thompson - 08/03/2012 - 16:06



 
Thomas, since the vast majority of mythicists are not scholars, there really are no works I can refer to, but for the most part blogs and what may or may not be pseudonyms. The exception is Robert Price, who has not really offered anything other than parallelomania as a means of drawing mythicist conclusions. But were you to take a look at mythicist blogs, you would find references to your work which you might or might not find objectionable.

At any rate, the term "mythicist" seems to me necessary, since otherwise one has no way of addressing en masse that collection of armchair critics of the academy whose only common feature seems to be certainty or belief in the likelihood that there was no historical Jesus whatsoever behind the myths and legends that grew up about that figure.
#25 - James F. McGrath - 08/08/2012 - 04:03



 
Dear James,
Then they have no place in a scholarly discussion and neither Bart Ehrman or you should have brought them in.

Thomas
Thomas L. Thoompson,
#26 - Thomas L. Thompson - 08/10/2012 - 18:46



 
" ... the term "mythicist" seems to me necessary, since otherwise one has no way of addressing en masse that collection of armchair critics of the academy whose only common feature seems to be certainty or belief in the likelihood that there was no historical Jesus whatsoever behind the myths and legends that grew up about that figure."
#25 - James F. McGrath - 08/08/2012 - 00:03

Here, James McGrath confirms that myths and legends grew up around a Jesus figure.

That raises an important question: how much of what is in the initial records is myth and legend, and how much isn't?
#27 - Craig Mac - 09/04/2012 - 23:08



 
So Mr McGrath in your "scholarly" opinion those of us who do not have fancy degrees are not qualified to comment on any of this jesus myth stuff. Is that what your saying? Well contrary to your "scholarly" opinion we can read same as you. No I do not think it's so much the "Mythicists" part that ticks you people off I think it's the fact that since the invention of the internet you can no longer hide this stuff from the general public. Are you threatened by Mythicists?
#28 - Phil - 11/26/2012 - 01:05



 
Gal 1:19 and 1 Cor 9:5 seem to me to be eloguent and virtualy certain statements of the reality of the historical Jesus. How else are we to understand adelphos/adelphoi other than meaning "sibling?" The economy of these statement should in no way vitiate the weight of this evidence. To the contrary, the meanings here appear to be unequivocal and for that reason attribute to them such weighty evidence. Nor is there any reason to think that these verses are later additions. They permit no escape. It is vitually certain from these two innocent statments that the historicity of one Jesus is virtually certain and render the mythicist position virtually impossible.

Yet it equally virtually certain that the figure of Jesus has been portrayed in terms of legend and myth, and so it is entirely appropriate to elucidate embellishments have been applied to this historical figure. Indeed, the literature about Jesus is by far, if not exclusively, portraying a mythic Jesus and was hardly written to adovcate his historicity, with the exception of Luke, whose prologue wishes us to believe that he drew upon the most impeccable and carefully perserved historical "facts" about Jesus. But then again, it seems to me, he protests too much and could not expect that someday people would think that his gospel is composed, as many now think, of Q, Mark and his L.
#29 - LM Barré - 01/04/2013 - 13:15



 
Greetings, 

The textual discrepancies, inconsistencies, and/or contradictions found between various early manuscripts does not immediately translate into errors, unintentional omissions, or manipulative politics. Just because certain 'errors' or changes in the wording occurs, errors or contradictions that cannot be explained in a conventional manner, does not mean that there isn't another overlooked explanation. The method in which the biblical writers used to abundantly convey their thoughts, including Jesus himself, allowed them to write or speak verses, and even entire stories, with completely different imagery, but still maintain an intended 'hidden' meaning. There is a very real possibility that modern interpretation of the scriptures has veered completely off the original path. In the attempt to sterilize ancient manuscripts, modern 'scholars' may be doing more harm than good by falsely assuming that changes of the wording are deleterious errors. 
Anyone ever consider this?

John W. Kelly
www.themysteryofgod.org
#30 - John W. Kelly - 03/04/2013 - 19:35


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இயேசுவின் நவீன உதவித்தொகை உருவாக்கிய அறிமுகத்தின் பட்டியல் இங்கே:

 

 

 

பயண போதகர் (க்ராஸன்)

ஒரு இழிந்த முனிவர் (மேக், டவுனிங்)

எசெனின் நீதியுள்ள ரப்பி (அலெக்ரோ)

ஒரு கலிலிய புனித மனிதன் (வெர்ம்ஸ், தீரிங்)

ஒரு புரட்சிகர தலைவர் (பிராண்டன், புக்கனன்)

ஒரு அபோகாலிப்டிக் போதகர் (எர்மன்)

ஒரு புரோட்டோ-விடுதலை இறையியலாளர் (ராபின்சன்)

ஒரு டிரான்ஸ்-தூண்டும் மன குணப்படுத்துபவர் (டேவிஸ்)

ஒரு விரிவாக்க தீர்க்கதரிசி (சாண்டர்ஸ், மேயர்)

ஒரு அமானுஷ்ய மந்திரவாதி (ஸ்மித்)

ஒரு பரிசேயர் (பால்க், மேக்கோபி)

சீர்திருத்தத்தைத் தேடும் ஒரு ரப்பி (ஹார்ஸ்லி, போர்க், சில்டன்)

ஒரு கலிலியன் கவர்ந்திழுக்கும் (வெர்ம்ஸ்)

ஒரு ஹில்லலைட் (மேக்கோபி)

ஒரு எசீன் (மேக்கோபி)

ஞான ஆசிரியர் (போர்க்)

ஒரு அதிசயம் வேலை செய்யும் தீர்க்கதரிசி மற்றும் பேயோட்டியாளர் (கோஸ்டர்)



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2010-12-23

“Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

 
Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus. Pa...See the introduction linked in this post for the relevance of this image. Image via Wikipedia

The introduction of Thomas L. Thompson’s and Thomas Verenna’s edited volume, Is This Not the Carpenter?A Question of Historicity has been published on The Bible and Interpretation.

The first essential step in any historical inquiry

This is a heartening introduction to the essential basics of valid historical methodology that has been very fudgy in the field of historical Jesus studies. The first thing any historian needs to grapple with when undertaking any inquiry is the nature of his or her sources. While probably most biblical scholars have acknowledged that the Gospels are theological narratives that depict a “Christ of faith” rather than a “Jesus of history”, there has at the same time been an assumption that that theological layer has been created to portray what the “historical Jesus” meant to the authors and their readers. Given this assumption, it has been believed that it might be possible to uncover some facts about the historical Jesus nonetheless. Historical Jesus studies have in this way been confused with the question of Christian origins.

The contributions in this book are from a diverse range of scholars. The introduction explains the purpose of the volume:

 

The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.

This sounds a little like an approach I have been suggesting on this blog and elsewhere for some time, so I find such a statement personally encouraging.

Historicity is an assumption

On the question of the historicity of Jesus itself, and how it is always assumed — never argued (despite strident assertions by some scholars to the contrary) — one reads in the Introduction:

For some time, New Testament scholarship has avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus. Their assumption of an historical Jesus has been secured within a debate about the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life, as referenced in the New Testament, reflect either Jesus’ own life and teaching or a construction of early Christianity. The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.

Did that last sentence say “Paul”? (It’s looking even better.)

Although no effort has yet been made to respond to recent efforts to focus on the question of historicity, the question as such is dismissed without argument. While the assumption of historicity has prompted many to attempt to describe what the historical Jesus must have been like, it has also encouraged many to ignore both literary and theological issues central to an understanding of New Testament narrative.  .  .  .   The question of historicity, itself, however, remains unaddressed and there is, accordingly, little discussion of the central questions regarding the significance and function of our texts. One has begun with the unwarranted assertion of a “probability” of an historical Jesus existing in ancient Palestine and freely presented one or other of such a possible figure as a viable alternative to the only known Jesus—the mythic one of our texts. Jesus has become a “concrete entity with recognizable parameters.” This was so thoroughly accepted that, when the Jesus Seminar was originally assembled, it was assumed from the outset that Jesus had been in fact an historical person. The Seminar, hence, could proceed to produce specific guidelines for determining the type of person he had been.

No first century general messianic expectation

It’s nice to see I’m also not alone in attempting to point out the absence of any evidence for a general expectation among Jews of a Davidic messiah in the early first century:

Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century—such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah—has been found wanting. The ancient world’s many mythic and theological representations of a figure comparable to the Jesus of New Testament texts are not alone decisive arguments against historicity, but they are part of the picture, which needs to be considered more comprehensively.

Jesus, a literary character in the train of Abraham, Moses, Jonah . . .

The Jesus we encounter in literature is by definition a literary Jesus. Whether there is additionally a historical Jesus behind that literary figure is a separate question, and one that cannot be assumed by default solely on the grounds of the existence of that literary one.

An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David. To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations. The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers.

How many Jesus’s have been reconstructed?

Doherty has observed that the sheer number and widely divergent reconstructions of the historical Jesus is an indicator that there is something seriously wrong with the nature of the so-called evidence for such a figure. As I have asked a few times also, what other historical figure do historians have such fundamental diversity of view of their very identity? Socrates was a philosopher, Caesar a politician and military leader, Aristophanes a playwright.

Here is the Introduction’s list of the many Jesus’s modern scholarship has produced:

 

  1. itinerate preacher (Crossan)
  2. a cynic sage (Mack, Downing)
  3. the Essene’s righteous rabbi (Allegro)
  4. a Galilean holy man (Vermes, Thiering)
  5. a revolutionary leader (Brandon, Buchanan)
  6. an apocalyptic preacher (Ehrman)
  7. a proto-liberation theologian (Robinson)
  8. a trance-inducing mental healer (Davies)
  9. an eschatological prophet (Sanders, Meier)
  10. an occult magician (Smith)
  11. a Pharisee (Falk, Maccoby)
  12. a rabbi seeking reform (Horsley, Borg, Chilton)
  13. a Galilean charismatic (Vermes)
  14. a Hillelite (Maccoby)
  15. an Essene (Maccoby)
  16. a teacher of wisdom (Borg)
  17. a miracle-working prophet and an exorcist (Koester)

See the online introduction at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/carp358009.shtml for a summary of each of the contributions to appear in the volume.

Thompson’s introductory exegesis points one way to where the evidence and discussions in the ensuing chapters leads. I am not so sure that each of the contributors would be willing to follow Thompson here, but maybe I can be pleasantly surprised to find at least an acknowledgement of the validity of Thompson’s position. (Previously on this blog when Thompson’s views on the Historical Jesus and the assumptions underlying HJ studies have been raised, they have been dismissed on the grounds that Thompson is “not a New Testament scholar”. Hopefully this volume will open a wider understanding that the methodological approach one adopts to inquire into Christian origins trumps all other considerations.)



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2012-08-11

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ — Introduction

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by Neil Godfrey

 

What is the significance of the title of this book edited by Thomas L. Thompson and Thomas S. Verenna. The subtitle is “The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus” — “of the Figure of”, not “of Jesus”. Perhaps that helps guard the book from being seen as too bluntly opening up the Christ Myth question. The main title comes from Mark 6:1-6 —

And he went out from thence; and he cometh into his own country; and his disciples follow him.

2 And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, Whence hath this man these things? and, What is the wisdom that is given unto this man, and what mean such mighty works wrought by his hands?

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him.

4 And Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.

6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages teaching.  (ASV)

Now the themes latent in this passage and that are drawn out in this introduction are the same ones that led me to launch one of my very first diffident attempts to explore questions of historicity in an academic forum in 1998: Re: Jesus the Carpenter? in Crosstalk. Fourteen years later I am reading the same question, with the same implications for the historicity of the exchange between Jesus and his neighbours, being raised not by an amateur outsider in an open scholarly forum but by scholars in a book so prohibitively expensive that it is beyond the reach of the general reader — and with a clear warning that I am not to reproduce any of it for wider sharing, without even the usual allowance of short passages for reviews.

Nonetheless, this Introduction chapter has been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation — even complete with its annoying “itinerate” typo.  (And given that it is already online I trust I have a right to quote passages from it here.) So you can go there and read what Thompson and Verenna write for themselves or stay here and read what I say they write, with some of my own commentary. 😉

The significance of the story about Jesus’ encounter with his home-town folk, for the purposes of this volume, is that it encapsulates two themes that are found reiterated throughout all the canonical gospels, and that testify to traditional theological rather than historical motifs:

  1. Jesus’ hands do wonderful works, though only a few know and experience these;
  2. The prophet is rejected by his own people who are to be replaced by a new people who will be the true worshipers.

The carpenter/artisan and skilled hands image evokes the idea of a Jewish Hephaestus. Hephaestus the skilled craftsman who made many wonderful artefacts for the gods was, according to Hesiod, born of the (virgin) goddess Hera without sexual union with her husband, Zeus. (Theogony, 927) The Jewish Scriptures have their own hero, Bezalel (Besal’el) who was divinely gifted with great skill to manufacture the wonderful earthly counterparts of heavenly structures (Exodus 31:1-11; 35-39 . . . )

The character of the prophet unrecognized and mistreated by his own people is also a commonplace throughout the biblical literature: the Psalms, Joseph, Jeremiah . . . .

The Gospel of Mark, it is suggested in this Introduction, hints at a reiteration of the Moses figure in Jesus. It was Moses who combined the two motifs of miracle worker and rejected prophet. Moses was forced to flee from his Egyptian homeland but returned to promise deliverance through powerful works performed with “a mighty hand” (Exodus 3:19 et al). (This coheres with other indicators not touched on in this book that Mark’s Jesus was modeled on Moses: for example, after a royal plot against Jesus’ life is announced Jesus departs with a very large mixed multitude towards a sea, after which he will ascend a mountain and announce the beginning of a new collective of twelve as his own people.)

The themes of rejection of the true prophet and the replacement of the “old” family who are blind with a “new” family who truly see and obey is then explored through the Gospel of Matthew. This latter Gospel, he points out, gathers into a sequential unit these themes and presents them in the format of “a living parable” that is structured upon Isaiah 6:9-10 —

He said, “Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Those familiar with other works by Thompson, such as The Messiah Myth and The Mythic Past (also published as The Bible in History) will recognize that he is finding in the Gospels the same motifs and ideology that he argues are reiterated throughout the literature in the earlier Jewish sacred texts. As in the old works, so in these “new” gospels, we find the literary crowds being blinded by God so they cannot understand and be forgiven, so that the readers of these narratives can see in them the failed and lost generation that they, the readers, are meant to replace as the new and understanding and obedient people of God.

The gospel author draws again on the Jewish scriptures to write his own new version of the old, old story — the overturning of the blindness among the new people of God chosen to replace the old disobedient generation in the story — as found in Psalm 78:1-4

Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth.

I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:

Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.

We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.

(I think those who see in the New Testament epistles the message that the Gospel and knowledge of God (through Jesus as his image) is something newly revealed, a mystery that was long hidden from the world, but is now revealed in the likes of Paul and his converts, would find a fruitful exploration of this theme by studying its oft-repeated literary antecedents, as here in the Psalms.)

The message is that the story of Jesus’ rejection by his own people who ironically see in this wonderworker with his hands only a carpenter is itself a parable expressing the age-old message found throughout the Jewish scriptures.

Matthew (I also think Mark) is preoccupied with re-writing Isaiah 6, Psalm 78, and the rest, and as such has no interest in a portrayal of any historical figure.

(I have argued the same point repeatedly in posts on this blog, applying Thompson’s analysis of Old Testament literature to the Gospels, so it is reassuring to see Thompson himself making the connections explicit.)

The Gospel of Luke carries forward the same themes in its own narrative parables. The Introduction makes an interesting observation on Luke’s treatment of Nazareth as a contrast to Matthew’s. Where Matthew had Jesus being brought up in Nazareth “so that he might be called a Nazarene”, Luke has Jesus’ parents leave Nazareth before he was born. He then depicts Jesus as returning there when the time came to begin his ministry. The role of the Samson-like “Nazarene” (presumably one of the Bible’s many puns) is given to his forerunner, John the Baptist (Luke 1:14-15).

But here at the same “home-town” the drama of Jesus turns on the same two motifs: the miracle-working deliverer from God and his rejection and suffering at the hands of his people. The home-town people who should belong to Jesus are to be replaced by a new people — the readers of the gospel. The messenger is once again driven by the spirit of God and speaks of his inevitable suffering at the hands of his own people. In Luke the message of deliverance and incoming kingdom of God is a replay of the ancient and ubiquitous “song of the poor man”. The miracles of Elijah and Elisha are evoked and his people are compare unfavourably to gentiles. This prompts their furious rejection of him to the extent that, much like Mark’s Jesus drove the demon-possessed pigs off a cliff before being rejected by the locals (Mark 5:11-17), the Nazareth crowd take Jesus to the edge of the cliff with intent to cast him down.

The message is the same. God’s people are being replaced by a new people through the deliverance of the miracle-working deliverer who must suffer yet who overturns the old order to bring in the outcast and raise up the lowly as spiritual replacements.

The same message of the lost and the saved is just as characteristic of the fourth gospel. In both Luke and John the Jews, the “rightful” people of God, are compared unfavourably to those they despised, the Samaritans. The people wonder at the amazing powers and news of Jesus at first, but many turn against him soon afterwards. As in Mark, Jesus heals “only a few sick folk” who typify the few who were once outcasts but are now called to take their place as the new Israel of God.

So the title, “Is this not the carpenter?”, evokes the “Jesus as Hephaestus” myth. It is this myth of Jesus — carrying the torch of the myth reiterated throughout the writings of the Jewish scriptures and even the wider Near Eastern literature — which is the subject of the book’s chapters.

Why should any of this be controversial?

One might ask why this question should by such a controversial one. New Testament scholars and no doubt many interested lay people are aware that the Jesus of the gospels is not the historical Jesus. Perhaps the difference is that this Introduction is arguing that the first task of historians is to understand the Jesus we do have — the literary and theological (mythical) one of the gospels — and to seek to understand coherently and comprehensively the nature of the New Testament literature, in particular on a continuum with other Jewish writings and scriptures, in their own right. That is, the question of the historical Jesus is replaced as the main goal of investigation by an more complete contextual understanding of the literature we have and the Jesus it contains.

But why should even that be controversial? If scholars have had a vested professional interest (not to mention a faith-interest for many) in exploring a will-o’-the-wisp (nothing more than a scholarly construct built upon an unfounded assumption) then some no doubt will feel that their own work will be harder to justify.

If the texts they have seen as soil to be dug with an archaeologist’s spade to recover buried artefacts of history are shown to have originated in the more ethereal world of ideas, literature, philosophy-theology, and not from historical narrative traditions, then their past efforts may indeed be threatened.  Ideally, however, deeper understanding is surely more usefully seen as a gateway to new insights, new models, new intellectual adventures.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

So scholars for some time now are said to have “avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus”. The historicity of Jesus — the assumption of his historicity — has been securely embedded within two other discussions that have been the focus of scholarly inquiry: the sayings of Jesus and the life of Jesus. This inquiry has necessarily proceeded from the assumption of historicity of Jesus.

This double quest for history behind the texts has led scholars to fail to seriously enough take account of the nature of those source texts, even to the extent of ignoring and misunderstanding their functions.

Ah yes, and this, too, is what I have attempted to address many times in posts here and in other venues. James McGrath has even written that literary analysis of the Gospels is not of any interest to “the historian” who is seeking to uncover the historical Jesus behind the texts. On the contrary, it has everything to do — or it should have — with how historians evaluate the function and nature of their texts and the sorts of questions that can be applied validly to them.

My own experience in exchanges with scholars has been that they have often tried to bypass this problem by saying that if the gospel authors write allegory and rewrite Old Testament and other stories to construct their narratives then that merely shows how highly or theologically they regarded the figure of Jesus. They very often say that such narratives have nothing to do with their really being a genuine historical Jesus behind it all. But it does have everything to do with the origins and creation of that gospel Jesus. The two sides of the argument thus become:

  1. that Jesus in the New Testament literature can be shown to have been crafted entirely from theological ideas and other literary narratives;
  2. and on the contrary, scholars can merely surmise that this Jesus was also the deposit from oral traditions tied directly to historical events.

The first position implies that the authors had no interest in any historical traditions at all. The second position is either contradicted or rendered irrelevant by the first.

I copy from the online article (not the book, of course):

The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts.

What happened to the radical critics of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Bruno Bauer and others did open up the question of Jesus’ historicity through their searing criticisms of many of the assumptions among biblical scholars but, our Introduction informs us, without “a coherent comprehensive understanding of the New Testament literature”, they also left radical rationalist criticism with an unfortunate stereotypical image.

Ever since then similar radical critiques are dismissed as not belonging to “serious” scholars (Michael Grant) or emanating from “rationalist dogmatists” (Geza Vermes).  (I’m not the only one to have expressed curiosity over the negative view of “scepticism” among many New Testament scholars. Many have bluntly frowned upon sceptical approaches to scholarly inquiry and even argued for a Christian ethic that treats texts as fellow neighbours who must be loved and believed until the scholar is forced to doubt their contents — the “hermeneutic of charity”.)

So the question of historicity has been dismissed by scholars without argument. Scholars investigating the historical Jesus are encouraged to “ignore both literary and theological issues central to an understanding of the New Testament narrative.”

Efforts to uncover “the historical Jesus” necessarily begin from the outset with the assumption that there is a historical Jesus to discover. And we know the many different types of Jesus that have been produced ever since, many of them contradictory. Schweitzer’s observation that scholars find a Jesus in their own image has become a truism.

The role genre studies play in investigations of the Jesus of the New Testament rests largely on an analysis of intertextuality, which is well defined in terms of an analysis of the functions of tale-types, stock figures, sayings, motifs, narrative patterns and thematic elements through a process of reiteration, refraction, allusion and emulation.

An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David.

To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. . . .  Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations.

The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers. (my formatting)

Analysing intertextuality and genre studies have been the themes of many of my own posts. More often than not they are based on work scholars themselves have produced. I hope to produce many more. It is a shame that so many other scholars have reacted with such unnecessarily acrimony.

Next post I’ll revisit Jim West’s opening chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? This has also been available online since 2010 at The Bible and Interpretation. Back then discussed his article on this blog. I will do so again with a few additional thoughts that have come to me since then.



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Is This Not the Carpenter: A Question of Historicity? (London: Equinox Press, forthcoming 2011)

 He left there and came to his homeland, accompanied by his disciples. On the Sabbath, he began to teach in the synagogue and many who heard him wondered, saying, “Where did all this come from? What wisdom has been given him and what great things are done with his hands! Is this not the carpenter, Mary’s son, brother to James, Joses, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were offended by him, as Jesus told them that a prophet did not go unrecognized except in his homeland, among his relatives and in his own house. And he was unable to do any great deed there, except that he laid his hands on some of the sick and healed them, while wondering over their mistrust (Mark 6.1-6; variants: Matt 13.53-58; Lk 4.16-30; John 4.44-46).  

Edited By Thomas L. Thompson  Professor emeritus, University of CopenhagenDecember 2010
and
Thomas S. Verenna Independent Researcher http://tomverenna.wordpress.com

Mark’s story brings together two central but distinct sayings of Jesus, each of which has a significant, thematically driven, sub-motif. The first embodies our title: “Is this not the carpenter?” with its subordinate leitmotif of hands doing wonders, significantly emphasized in the story’s conclusion wherein hands are laid on some of the sick to heal them. The other saying is Jesus’ complaint that a prophet is unrecognized in his own home town, and the corresponding anger and dissonance that this provokes. These distinct thematic elements are treated independently in the variants of this story we find in the other gospels. While the saying about the prophet rejected is given its own distinctive role in John 4.44-46 in support of the contrast John creates in the foregoing narrative between Jews and the Samaritans on the one hand and foreigners, represented by the royal official, who believes Jesus even before his son is cured (John 4.47-53) in the following story segment on the other. Even Galileans welcomed him, but, for John, the Jews insist on miracles! John’s story, in fact, has little understanding for or interest in an historically viable understanding of Jesus’ reception. He is so committed to a Christian supersessionist polemic against Jews that he freely compares the Jews negatively with Samaritans, Galileans and foreigners in support of his presentation of Jesus as “the savior of the world” (John 4.42). Jesus’ proverb that “a prophet has no honor in his own country” is hardly about any Jesus of history, but summarizes for John contemporary Jewish opposition towards a newly formed Christianity’s alternative understanding of an implicitly common religious heritage.

In the closure of Mark’s story of Jesus in his hometown, as in Mark’s presentation of the saying about a prophet in his homeland, motifs of rejection and disbelief are subordinated to the theme of Jesus’ identity: “Is this not the carpenter?” This episode in the synagogue of his home town begins within the larger context of Jesus’ growing fame, in which he is everywhere met with amazement and wonder at his wisdom and “the great things done with his hands.” In the segment immediately preceding his arrival in his home country, Jesus has amazed a crowd of mourners by taking a young girl by the hand that she might arise from the dead (Mk 5.41). So also in Mark 6, Mark’s prophet wonders over the distrust with which he is met: a distrust, which, although preventing him from doing any “great deed,” is nevertheless undermined by Jesus laying “his hands on some of the sick and healing them.” This simple, but ironic play on the hands doing great deeds effectively directs Mark’s audience to wonder over the story’s central question about this man who does wonders with his hands that they might ask: “Is this not the carpenter?”1

One does well to consider, here, how the scene, with its pivotal motifs of the craftsman and his wonderful hands, readily evokes the figure of the Greek god, Hephaestus,2 who was the god of craftsmen, who, himself, had forged the magnificent equipment of the gods and almost any finely-wrought metalwork imbued with powers that appears in Greek myth. He too was—though crippled by Zeus—strong-armed. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, he was born of the virgin goddess Hera3 (though he is also described as the son of Zeus and Hera by Homer4 and indeed, in later tradition, the son of the Cretan sun god, Talus5). Does the question about the carpenter identify Jesus as a Jewish Hephaestus?6 Within biblical tradition, a comparable figure can be recognized in the craftsman, Besal’el, who, like Jesus, is both filled with divine wisdom and the ability to create wonderful things with his hands (Ex 31.1-11; 35.30-39.43; 1Chron 2.20; 2Chron 1.5).

Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: “Behold, I have chosen Besal’el, son of Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah and have filled him with the divine spirit, with wisdom and learning, with understanding for craftsmanship so that he might create artistic designs in gold, silver and bronze, engrave stone for inlay, carve wood and, indeed, carry out all types of handwork (Ex 31.1-5).

It is also in the Old Testament that one finds an early linkage between the creative identity which this thematic element gives to the figure of Jesus and his role as the prophet, unrecognized by his own people, which is fundamental to the construction of Mark’s episode. The figure of the prophet as one who is mistreated by both friends and family is nearly ubiquitous in biblical literature and there are numerous passages which help us in understanding Mark’s story (esp. Ps 31.12bc; 38.12; 69.9-10; 88.9 and Job 19.13-19). Several Old Testament narrative figures have also been portrayed in this role. Joseph is scorned by his whole family for his ability to prophecy and to interpret dreams. He is thrown into a pit by his brothers and, escapes death by being sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen 37). A reiteration of such a rejected Joseph also structures the “life of Jeremiah.” He, too, is hated by the people. Attempts are made on his life (Jer 11.18-12.6). He is ostracized and rejected (Jer 15.10-21), publicly persecuted (Jer 19.1-20.6) and is barred from the temple (Jer 36.5-10), arrested and imprisoned (Jer 37.15-21). Like Joseph, Jeremiah is thrown into a pit (Jer 38.5-13) and finally forced to flee to Egypt after the death of Gedaliya (Jer 42.18-43.7). It is, however, the less precise reiteration in Mark of the development of the figure of Moses which fully brings together the thematic figures of the prophet rejected in his homeland and the wonderworker whose hand creates mighty things. Although Moses’ life, in the brief sketch of a story in Exodus 2.11-15, has been threatened by Pharaoh and he needed to flee his homeland, in Exodus 3, he is sent as Yahweh’s prophet to Pharaoh to free his people (Ex 3.10). Yahweh knows that the Egyptian king will refuse, “except that he be forced by a mighty hand” (Ex 3.19 Gr.). It is therefore that—pointing ahead to the coming story of miracles and wonders—Yahweh tells Moses that he will strike the Egyptians with many wonders and that Pharaoh will let the people go (Ex 3.20)! Moses is to tell the Israelites that God will strike the Egyptians with wonders: “with great power and a mighty hand” (Ex 3,20; 6.1; 32.11)7—a phrase which finds an echo in Mark’s story.

Matthew’s version of the story primarily distinguishes itself from Mark’s through its context. The nearly verbatim reiteration of Mark’s story in Matthew 13.54-588 finds its place in Matthew’s gospel with the help of Jesus’ statement at the close of chapter 12. His “true mother and brothers” are his disciples and “those who do the will of his father” (Matt 12.50). In contrast to Mark’s use of the story in developing the figure of Jesus as wonder worker in the style of Moses and Hephaestus, with the theme of mistrust by the people providing its ironic support, the discourse in Matthew 13 presents the story rather as a “living parable” about the kingdom.9 Matthew’s story of Jesus in the synagogue follows a series of brief similes about contrasts and distinctions related to the kingdom of heaven; namely, the parables of the weeds and wheat growing together (Matt 13.24-30), of the little mustard seed becoming a great tree (vv. 31-32) and of the leaven in flour (vv. 33). These are loosely organized similes, functioning as illustrative variants of the discourse’s opening parable of the sower (Matt 13.1-9), a story which Matthew uses to supply his parables with a reiteration of Isaiah 6.9-10: a most defining passage of Isaiah, which supplies a structure for Matthew’s gospel and suggests a pedagogically oriented contrast between the understanding reader of this gospel to the role that is played by the rejecting, misunderstanding generations of the story’s Isaiah-like figure. Much as the author of Isaiah has his prophet sent to speak to the people of his generation, which Yahweh had himself made deaf, blind and without understanding that they not turn and be forgiven (Isa 6,9-13; cf. Mk 4.12-13!), so that they might all the better serve their pedagogical role of a lost generation, so Matthew will have his hero speak to the “great crowds,” about the kingdom of heaven only in parables, that they also will not understand. He, thereby, rather evokes in his readers an understanding akin to Jesus’ Isaiah-like disciples, who are given the role of understanding the secrets of the kingdom (Matt 13.14-17)! Matthew has Jesus interpret the parable of the sower precisely in terms of understanding or not understanding parables (Matt 13.18-23), and follows this with similar interpretations of the three similes for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 13.24-33).

Matthew closes his discourse on parables with the help of the opening of Psalm 78, in which the psalmist defines the parable as a riddle of revelation in a striking reversal of Isaiah! Matthew will not hide the “glorious deeds of Yahweh, his might and his wonders” from the children of his generation (Ps 78.4): “I will open my mouth in parables; I will speak of what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt 13.35)! The next scene offers a further expansion as, Jesus, alone with his disciples, is asked to explain his first “parable of the weeds of the field.” Jesus responds with an allegorical coding of his earlier interpretation of the parable of the sower (Matt 13.36-43), followed by three additional similes for the richness of the kingdom: treasure hidden in the field (Matt 13.44), a merchant in search for fine pearls (Matt 13.45-46) and a net thrown into the sea (Matt 13.47-50) and closes his discourse on parables with a final simile, comparing his understanding disciples with “every scribe who is trained for the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 13.51-52). It is within this context that Matthew’s paraphrastic version of Mark’s allegory makes the story itself of his preaching in his home town’s synagogue into a parable. It provides a key to the brief discussion about Jesus’ wonders and the scribes’ request that he do a sign in Matthew 12. With Psalm 78’s singer, Matthew will speak in parables to Jesus’ true family of disciples and followers about the “glorious deeds of the Lord, of his might and wonders,” but few such mighty signs will be given to the disbelieving. Matthew’s story radically transforms Mark’s tale, but is broadly ’unaware of its mythic potentials. His orientation toward rewriting Isaiah and his preoccupation in creating a suffering servant for his own generation of readers precludes any historical interest in Mark’s figure of Jesus.

Luke’s version of the story is found within the opening chain-narrative of his gospel, which is linked to the birth narrative with the plot-supporting leitmotif of the divine spirit which fills or leads the episode’s central figure (Lk1.15, 34, 41, 80; 2.25-27; 3.16,22; 4.1). So Jesus, filled with the spirit, comes to “Nazareth, where he had grown up” (Lk 4.16; cf. Lk 2.39-40, 51). Luke’s singular identification of Jesus’ home town as Nazareth reflects more than merely a simple identification of the unnamed patrída of Mark’s story.Much as the opening of Luke’s genealogy had identified Jesus as “the son, as was supposed, of Joseph” in order to accommodate the fatherly role of the divine spirit in Jesus’ birth story (Lk 1.34), the naming of Jesus’ home town as Nazareth seems to accommodate Matthew’s earlier narrative and create a harmony of the seemingly conflicting geographies of Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives. Whereas Luke had Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where they unsuccessfully sought temporary lodging, Matthew has Jesus grow up in Nazareth, because, in their return from Egypt, Joseph and Mary had been afraid to return to their home town of Bethlehem in Judea and went rather to Nazareth so that a passage from Isaiah might be interpreted as a prophecy; that Jesus would be a “Nazarene” (Matt 2.19-23; cf. Isa 11.1; 61.1), a role which Luke’s own birth story—reiterating the role of the spirit from the Samson story—had given to the Baptist (Lk 1.14-15; cf. Lev 19.9; Num 6.3; Judges 13.4-5). It is the leitmotif-figure of the spirit which leads Jesus to Nazareth. There, Luke associates Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue with both the driving spirit and Isaiah’s figure of the suffering servant. The text of Jesus’ sermon, reiterating the great ancient Near Eastern trope of “the song for a poor man”,10 is used by Luke to define the proclamation of the good news, which had marked the opening of Mark’s gospel as an inauguration of the kingdom of God and which had already developed a stereotypical configuration of Jesus’ role as miracle worker in Luke (Mark 1.1; cf. Luke 1.19; 2.10; 4.43):

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to prisoners and sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and to proclaim a year of grace from the Lord (Isa 61.1-2; Lk 4.18-19).

 

The people, at first, react with wonder and acceptance at Jesus’ interpretive claim that the text, marking the kingdom of God with the expectations of the “poor man’s song,” now finds its fulfillment. However, the form of the question, with which Luke has them express their wonder, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” both turns the story away from the defining themes of the good news and healing reversals of the fortunes of the poor and centers it within the thematic element of the unacknowledged prophet in his homeland. This shift of focus is also stressed by the expansion of Mark’s story with references to two miracle stories of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kgs 17.9-24; 2 Kgs 5.1-14). Although both are classic and fitting illustrations of the “song for a poor man”, both are strongly marked by an unfavorable contrast between foreigners and Israelites. It is this pejorative distinction which provides the cause for the people’s wonder, which turns to anger and grows to fury as the story closes with the people driving Jesus out of the village and attempting to throw him over a cliff-hang which is strikingly similar to that which had been used in Mark’s foregoing story to destroy a flock of demon-possessed pigs—a story that had also closed on the motif of Jesus being rejected by the people (Mk 5.11-17)!

Both the distinction between those who are saved and those not and the death-threatening fury the discrimination evokes fits the distinctive Christian supersessionist context of John 4’s story which contrasts the Jews of Jesus’ homeland so unfavorably with the Samaritans. This is akin to the comparable emphasis on the accepted and rejected in some of Matthew’s parables. Only the people’s inability to lay hold of him: his “passing through their midst”, allows Luke to continue Jesus’ triumphant tour with a following brief, three-fold closing story of healing and driving out demons and fevers, through which both his fame and his popularity grow (Lk 4.31-44): all illustrations of Jesus, “preaching the good news of the kingdom of God” (Lk 4.43), which define him as “the holy one of God” (Lk 4.34), “son of God” and “messiah” (Lk 4.41). Luke’s narration is emphatically influenced by the other gospel traditions about Jesus. Indeed, his dominant commitment to the central Old Testament folkloric motif of the spirit seems to draw him to ignore the historical potential of any of the significant thematic elements he develops. For Luke, the crowd’s wonder offers an opportunity of asserting the theological and mythic values of his and Matthew’s narrative above anything which might represent a description of events. His own Jesus was Yahweh’s servant announcing the good news of the kingdom of God to the poor. The people’s wonder over this son of Joseph whom they knew is interpreted by Jesus himself as a threatening demand to John’s unrecognized prophet in his home town, as the episode turns from wonder to discord, threat of violence and mutual rejection.

In concluding this brief exegetical excursion, one must ask once again, with themarveling people of Jesus’ home town in the Gospel of Mark, our historicist question: “Is this not the carpenter?” And we must answer, just as quickly: Yes, even so! Those “few sick people” on whom he laid his wonder-creating hands give us the key to our allegory, and we, too, can marvel with Jesus at the disbelief with which he was met by his own people! It is Jesus as Hephaestus … the myth, which demands affirmation. It is that which Mark writes of and which also forms the modest center of focus for the present collection of essays.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

For some time, New Testament scholarship has avoided direct questions regarding the historicity of Jesus. Their assumption of an historical Jesus has been secured within a debate about the sayings of Jesus and the events of his life, as referenced in the New Testament, reflect either Jesus’ own life and teaching or a construction of early Christianity. The dichotomous structure of this debate has typically made alternative explanations for the ubiquitous allegorical interpretations and narrative reiterations and allusions of a wide variety of both ancient Near Eastern and biblical motifs, themes and tropes irrelevant in the eyes of many scholars, in spite of the fact that an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts. While early critical scholarship has exposed many of the flaws in contemporary assumptions of historicity already in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the absence of a coherent comprehensive understanding for an understanding of the New Testament literature at the time created a stereotype, which has not yet faded. As late as 1977, for example, Michael Grant could maintain that "no serious scholar" would "postulate the non-historicity of Jesus."11 Even more recently, Geza Vermes has remarked in his most recent book on Jesus' resurrection, in an affirmation of his own belief in the historicity of the figure of Jesus, set his own perspective as opposed to "rationalist dogmatists" (2008).12Although no effort has yet been made to respond to recent efforts to focus on the question of historicity, 13 the question as such is dismissed without argument. While the assumption of historicity has prompted many to attempt to describe what the historical Jesus must have been like, it has also encouraged many to ignore both literary and theological issues central to an understanding of New Testament narrative.  An analysis of this problem is important, as the current discussions about which of the many proposed historical figures of Jesus might be judged the more probable have become all too predictable. The question of historicity, itself, however, remains unaddressed and there is, accordingly, little discussion of the central questions regarding the significance and function of our texts. One has begun with the unwarranted assertion of a “probability” of an historical Jesus existing in ancient Palestine and freely presented one or other of such a possible figure as a viable alternative to the only known Jesus—the mythic one of our texts. Jesus has become a "concrete entity with recognizable parameters."14 This was so thoroughly accepted that, when the Jesus Seminar was originally assembled, it was assumed from the outset that Jesus had been in fact an historical person. The Seminar, hence, could proceed to produce specific guidelines for determining the type of person he had been. "Over the…years a flood of works…has inundated scholars and the public, as the range of portraits of Jesus broadens."15 Jesus became all of the following: an itinerate preacher,16 a cynic sage,17 the Essene's righteous rabbi,18 a Galilean holy man,19 a revolutionary leader,20 an apocalyptic preacher,21 a proto-liberation theologian,22 a trance-inducing mental healer,23an eschatological prophet,24 an occult magician,25 a Pharisee,26 a rabbi seeking reform,27a Galilean charismatic,28 a Hillelite,29 an Essene,30 a teacher of wisdom,31 a miracle-working prophet and an exorcist32 and the list continues to grow…. Jesus is as fluid a figure as is our understanding of early Christianity. "The mistake was to suppose that Jesus could come to mean more to our time by entering into it as a man like ourselves.”33

[A]ttempts to say what we could really know about the historical Jesus actually told us more about their authors than about the person they sought to describe. The authors seem to have looked into the well of history searching for Jesus and seen their own reflection.34

Such projection represents the crux of the problem this book hopes to address. Historical Jesus research did not come about through the discovery of an actual historical Jesus as focus for such research. Despite what many have suggested, the data we have is no more useful for an understanding of an historical Jesus today than it had been a century ago. Even what little had been understood as known to scholars of the nineteenth century—such as the existence of widespread Jewish expectations for an apocalyptic messiah—has been found wanting.35 The ancient world’s many mythic and theological representations of a figure comparable to the Jesus of New Testament texts are not alone decisive arguments against historicity, but they are part of the picture, which needs to be considered more comprehensively. Literarily viable figures have been represented—historically—in many clarifying ways.

The role genre studies play in investigations of the Jesus of the New Testament rests largely on an analysis of intertextuality, which is well defined in terms of an analysis of the functions of tale-types, stock figures, sayings, motifs, narrative patterns and thematic elements through a process of reiteration, refraction, allusion and emulation. An historical Jesus is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship. It is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David. To the extent that New Testament literature was written with literary, allegorical and, indeed, theological and mythic purpose, rather than as an account of historical events, there is significant need, not to speak of warrant, to doubt the historicity of its figures to the extent that such figures owe their substance to such literature. The best histories of Jesus today reflect an awareness of the limits and uncertainties in reconstructing the story of his life. Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Sarah, Ruth and Boaz, Jonah and his big fish are but a handful of characters found in the Bible, without the slightest historicity. They are literary creations. The figures of New Testament discourse must also be critically examined in the same light, for the New Testament is to be defined neither as a history of the early Christian church nor as an account of the life of a man named Jesus and of that of his followers.

An effort to define the question

The essays collected in this volume have a modest purpose. Neither establishing the historicity of an historical Jesus nor possessing an adequate warrant for dismissing it, our purpose is to clarify our engagement with critical historical and exegetical methods in the hopes of enabling the central question regarding the function of New Testament literature to resist the endless production of works on the historical Jesus. Our hope is to open a direct discussion of the question of historicity much in the spirit of the more than decade-long discourse and debate by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, which has been so profitably engaged in regard to the historicity of figures and narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the related construction of a history of ancient Palestine.36 The essays we collect here are presented by a wide range of scholars and deal with three central issues: 1) some problems and issues of past scholarship regarding the historical Jesus; 2) new perspectives regarding the figure of Paul and his epistles as our “earliest testimony” of the figure of Jesus; and 3) intertextual literary reading and the significance of the function of a rewritten Bible for literary composition. These collected essays will close with a related, theory-oriented discussion about the history of Christian origins without an historical Jesus.

Past Scholarship on the Historical Jesus

Whether or not one wishes to use the term “minimalism” to identify some of the questions which are addressed and the methods that are used in the essays of this volume, the first, brief article by Jim West, in his article “A Very, Very Short Introduction to Minimalism,” opens our discussion by pointing to some of the central issues engaged in different ways by most of the contributors. When one is dealing with biblical traditions, one is not dealing with texts that are historical in their orientation, however much they construct a past. Theology is rather the medium of biblical discourse. If one does insist on reading biblical narratives and the literature related to them as if they were histories of Israel and of early Christianity, from which modern histories of Israel and early Christianity can be constructed, one is quickly caught in a web of circular reasoning. The trap, West further argues, is difficult to avoid, as one is unable to write such a modern history without drawing directly on the narrative perspectives of the biblical text itself. The Bible, indeed, is both the most important source in constructing such a history and its only viable confirmation! On the other hand, lacking a history of Israel and of early Christianity which are independent of biblical perspectives, one cannot reasonably or convincingly identify an historical Jesus or an ancient Israel, which existed apart from their story worlds. One can neither affirm nor deny their existence. One can only conclude that we lack evidence for such constructs. With this dilemma in place, West argues that the function of historical construction is neither biblically based nor appropriate for an understanding of the biblical literature.

Roland Boer’s article, “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer”, which asks whether we have yet seen the end of the Bible’s territorial dominance over rational thought or, indeed, German dominance over biblical scholarship, which had been furthered through a Kulturkamp fought with and through theology, the then lingua franca of public debate. He reminds biblical scholars of their well-known irrelevance to nineteenth century intellectual life in France and Britain and draws out some relevant implications of our field’s long flirtation with what had been once known as the “German pestilence.” Instead of “dismissing the Bible as a document of outmoded superstition,” nineteenth century German intellectuals developed their theories of society in terms of biblical criticism. Boer’s discussion, for example, of the diminished humanity resulting from Ludwig Feuerbach’s understanding of God as a projection of what is best in ourselves, David Strauss’ mythic representation of Jesus as “a poetic expression of deeper truths” and a natural way of understanding life and religion and Bruno Bauer’s critical historical perspectives about Christian origins in the second century, CE, which defined Christianity as a form of sectarian, exclusivemonotheism, all develop a discourse which deconstructs the orthodox understanding of early Christianity. Boer, because of his understanding of Bauer as a forerunner of “minimalism,” may surprise some readers by his assurance that Bauer continues to be relevant to our discussion. However, his assurance rests on the caution Bauer’s work maintains even for today’s scholarship that “one must be very careful with using the Bible for any historical reconstruction.”

Lester Grabbe, in his contribution, entitled “‘Jesus Who is Called Christ’: References to Jesus Outside Christian Sources,” underlines such caution with his unfortunately—but appropriately—brief survey of the few and ambiguous extra-biblical references to the figure of Jesus which exist apart from the Bible: our present, quite limited, store of early Jesus testimonies which is unfortunately neither large nor growing. Beginning with the known Roman sources, he refers to Tacitus’ use, nearly a century after the date of Jesus’ alleged death, of what are presumably Roman sources, which enable him to describe the success of Nero’s efforts to punish a group called “Christians”, a name that was derived from one, Christus, who had suffered the death penalty under Puntius Pilatus and who had become the source of superstitions in Judea and Jerusalem. Grabbe then turns to Tacitus’ younger contemporary, Suetonius, who had also referred to Christians who had been punished by Nero (emperor from 54-68 CE). In contradiction to Tacitus, however, he refers to a Chrestus/ Christus as an instigator of Jewish disturbances in Rome under Claudius, who had been emperor from 41-54 CE. This reference Grabbe judges “problematic” for several reasons, not least that of chronology. Pliny the Younger (110 CE), speaking of his own (limited) involvement with the trials and executions of Christians, describes how these people had chanted verses in honor of Christ “as if to a god” and made vows to him to live virtuously. Finally, turning to a more detailed discussion of Josephus, who wrote in the second half of the first century, and to his medieval commentators, Grabbe argues that Josephus, who might well have used one or other Christian tradition for his brief paraphrase, did have knowledge of the execution of James, who is described as Jesus’ brother. He, however, also argues, on the basis the witness of Origen and Jerome, that Josephus’ bold and famous assertion: “This was the Christ!” (the testimonium Flavianum) is to be understood as a later, Christian insertion. Grabbe goes on to offer his own “hypothetical reconstruction” for what Josephus “might have written.” He further argues that Rabbinic references to Jesus are secondary and based on “Christian” sources and closes on an all too brief discussion about two attempts at an early “Jewish”life of Jesus, the Toledot Yeshu, and the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew.

Niels Peter Lemche follows Grabbe by taking up the classic question of historical Jesus study: the compatibility of the two faces of Jesus that one meets in the gospels: the Jesus of Nazareth and the church’s mythic, divine figure of Christ in an article, entitled: “The Grand Inquisitor and Christ: Why the Church Doesn’t Want Jesus”. Likening David Friedrich Strauss’s Jesus, without myth, to Dostoyevsky’s Christ in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, Lemche discusses today’s conservative and evangelical alienation from studies of the Bible which are both historical and critical, an alienation which undermines the idealistic independence of exegesis from the authority of church dogmatics that had been so sorely sought by the eighteenth century theologian, Philipp Gabler. While the nineteenth century’s critical exegesis has often been accused of having alienated believing Christians from their Bible, its more appropriate role and self-understanding was determined by the role of ridding the Bible of ancient beliefs and superstitions, so that it might more legitimately serve as a reliable source for the history of both Judaism and Christian origins. However, as in the nineteenth century, so too today, doubts about the historicity of the Bible’s events and figures—not least those related to the figure of Jesus—and a return to an understanding of the mythic qualities of biblical literature is also intolerable, as can readily be seen in reactions to the deconstruction of biblical history by the “Copenhagen school.”

In closing the first part of our book, Emanuel Pfoh’s essay, “Jesus and the Mythic Mind: An Epistemological Problem”, addresses the implications of a renewed emphasis on a mythic Jesus in his effort to distinguish—from a historical and anthropological perspective—knowledge about an historical person behind the New Testament figure of Jesus from what should be understood as an aspect of mythic creation. Pfoh addresses what he calls “the mythic mind in the intellectual world of antiquity” on the one hand and the question of whether knowledge of an historical Jesus is possible at all, on the other. Contemporary understanding of an historical Jesus is not based on evidence so much as it is rooted in theological necessity. The mythic character of the figure of Jesus relates to the perspectives ancients had of reality and the role which humans were thought to hold beyond what is known and tangible in this world. Bearing and illustrating a tradition, great figures of ancient literature reiterate each other in their behavior, values and function. In such a context, the question of historicity, as might be implied, for example, in the Jesus Seminar’s efforts to identify the ipsissima verba of Jesus, is wholly inappropriate. The matrix of biblical literature can hardly accommodate the rational presuppositions about reality that modern historicism has as its point of departure. Bultmann’s understanding of kerygma precludes the theological function of an historical Jesus, however much the goals of the second and third quests for the historical Jesus assume just such historicity as their theological point of departure. As Old Testament studies has learned over the past forty years of critical research, the limitations of historical knowledge are hardly to be ignored and biblical texts be allowed an understanding as historical sources. Pfoh closes this paper on perspectives with a discussion of some of the ways that “cultural memory” can help clarify issues further.

Paul and Early Christianity

Part Two of our book comprises three articles which take up the New Testament’s purportedly earliest references to Jesus and the question of their relevance to the question regarding the historicity of this figure. The first essay, by Robert Price, “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?”, addresses fundamental methodological questions concerning the dating of the genuine Pauline epistles. Price begins by examining some of the assumptions of “mythicists” today by using George Wells and Earl Doherty as his primary examples. He draws the conclusion that the originally mythic savior of Paul’s epistles was gradually historicized and then found its place in the later gospels. One of whose central functions was the legitimation of early Christianity through an origin story. In this effort, the gospel stories expansively fill a void left by the epistles. Acknowledging the traditional early dating of the epistles, such scholars see an apparent lack of knowledge about Jesus’ life in the epistles, even as, if such knowledge had existed, such references would have been highly relevant to many of the arguments of the epistles. Nor do they see Paul evoking Jesus’ authority, when he might be most expected to do so. Turning to the history of “mythicist” scholarship, Price first discusses the implications of the theories of Couchoud and Dujardin from the late 1930s concerning Paul’s knowledge of an historical Jesus, in so far as such knowledge might be implied on the basis of their understanding of the authorship and date of the Pauline epistles. Price then turns to Arthur Drew, a writer of the early twentieth century, in an effort to raise the question of whether a “mythicist” theory requires an early dating of Paul. Taking up the questionably principle that sayings precede narratives and epistles gospels, one might easily add that the more spectacular can enhance the less and one might arrive at the conclusion that, therefore, the gospels expand on the themes of the epistles. However circular, the argument is rhetorically simple and unfortunately persuasive. Even if the epistles are late, the gospels must be much later, because they are unknown by the epistles. Citing Robertson’s argument that even if the epistles were later and had accepted the tradition of gospel myths, this would not establish the historicity of these miraculous and heroic myths, Price goes on to argue that there is a lot less difference between the Jesus story of the gospels and the Christ myth of the epistles than we usually assume. Following a brief discussion of the similarities between myths and legends, Price turns to the possibility of Marcion’s authorship of some of the epistles in an effort to raise the question of whether he knew of the gospel tradition as well as to turn his discussion to the anti-Marcionite structure of the gospels as rewritten scripture, an understanding of the gospels which has long been argued by Thomas Brodie and others. He then turns to the apparent Marcionite influences on the gospels of Mark, John and Thomas. Price concludes his essay by recognizing the self-serving character of the early twentieth century “mythicist” acceptance of an early date of the Pauline epistles and hints at what he sees as a (historical) priority of the epistles’ “Christ myth” to what he calls the “Jesus epic.”

 

In the following article in this section: “Paul: The Oldest Witness to the Historical Jesus”, Mogens Müller, though also accepting both an early date for the letters of Paul and the highly “mythic” or theological character of Paul’s figure of Jesus, understands these letters as providing the earliest witness to the historical person of Jesus. The letters themselves reflect the process by which this figure has been transformed into a “heavenly savior,” and transformed so thoroughly that the historical figure of the past has nearly disappeared from our texts. The process, itself, is viewed as evidence for the early dating of the genuine Pauline epistles, relative to the gospels. Diametrically opposed as his perspective of the early dating of Paul is to Wells’ and Doherty’s “mythicist” use of the early dating of the Pauline epistles, Müller argues that all four of the canonical gospels reflect Paul in the saving significance of Jesus’ life and death. Müller’s use of Paul’s letters as witness to the historical Jesus is not oriented to identifying specific elements of Jesus’ life and teaching within the epistles which have been reiterated in the gospels. He avoids that argument’s intrinsic, circular argumentation, by associating Paul’s witness rather to the significance attached to his life and conduct in subsequent interpretations. Assuming that Paul had never met the historical Jesus, the whole of his understanding would have been derived through others, even as, in Paul’s self-understanding, his own calling came directly from the “mythical” Christ. That is, Paul understood Jesus according to the transformation of his own life. The argument for Paul as witness to the historical Jesus rests on the effect of his message on Paul. While one learns admittedly little about a “life of Jesus” from the genuine letters of Paul, these letters rather witness to the theological consequences Paul drew from Jesus’ life and death. What we meet in the epistles is Jesus as faith sees him. We only have access to him through this reception: as expressed in confessional statements. Through this indirect way, Müller finds the Jesus of history behind the letters of Paul, not so much in the mythic figure Paul developed, as—through his reception—as “a charismatic interpreter of the will of God,” an understanding of the figure of Jesus which is also cast in the gospels. He closes his paper with the assertion that if Paul must be assumed to be a historical person, the same assumption must be made in regard to Jesus.

 

The paper of Thomas Verenna, “Born Under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles,” also directly engages the question of Paul’s witness to an historical Jesus and questions whether Paul in fact believed his Jesus to be historical, rather than an allegorical figure within the genre of “rewritten Bible,” reiterating Isaiah’s “suffering servant.” Beginning with a discussion of the Psalms, Isaiah and the historicity of the crucifixion, he considers Mark’s representation of “crucifixion” and “resurrection” in the context of Ezekiel’s reference to the myth of Tammuz, which, having roots in ancient Near Eastern traditions from as early as that of the Sumerian Inanna, is evoked in the gospels through Mark’s allusions to Psalm 22. Such insight into Jewish culture can also be recognized in Paul’s keying the crucifixion to the Passover tradition, an association based not in history but literature; namely, Leviticus 16 and Psalm 22. Verenna argues further for early Jewish familiarity with mystery religions and early forms of Gnosticism with the help of Paul’s discussion of Archons in Galatians, Romans and 1 Corinthians in an effort to explain, with the help of I Enoch, Paul’s understanding of Jesus death and rebirth as hidden and spiritual rather than historical. The reference in Galatians of Jesus as “born of a woman” has led historical Jesus scholarship to two claims. He points out that the passage in Galatians is entirely allegorical and rooted in Old Testament rhetoric and, accordingly, hardly meant to be taken literally. A further example is taken up from 1 Corinthians 11, which is set in the context of a discussion of disputes in the community of Corinth, in which the author introduces the allegory of the last supper with its interpretive echoes on Exodus 24’s covenant meal, which had been introduced in 1 Corinthians 10. In closing, Verenna takes up a passage in Galatians 1, which refers to “James, the brother of the Lord.” This, he describes as “the strongest case” for Paul referring to a historical Jesus. Reminding the reader of the possibility that the term “brother” is not necessarily to be understood literally and, at the same time, lightly suggesting that Paul’s use of the term might derive from the fellowship language so well known from mystery religions of the day, and as, for instance, might be actually supported by 1 Corinthians 15, he leans rather apologetically on the much later Gospel of Luke to hold to the possibility that the passage not be understood literally. In concluding, he points out that Paul’s Christ is taken from his understanding of scripture and then asserts that he had not been an historical figure, living some decades earlier, but an allegorical figure, reiterating themes of the Old Testament.



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The Rewritten Bible

This third and final section of the book borders on the eclectic. The first essay by James Crossley, “Can John's Gospel Really Be Used to Reconstruct a Life of Jesus? An Assessment of Recent Trends and a Defence of a Traditional View”, begins by pointing to the long-standing habit of New Testament scholarship, prior to the last decade, of avoiding the Gospel of John in discussions of the historical Jesus. In more recent years, however, the work of the British scholar, William Bauckham, on the “eyewitness” and on the Gospel of John as the work of such, the situation has changed considerably and this change is placed within the broader cultural anxiety and conflict over the growing influence of evangelical and conservative religion on the one hand and secularism on the other. In dealing with Bauckham’s understanding of the importance of eyewitnesses for the Gospel of John, Crossley takes up the pericope dealing with Sabbath disputes in Mark 2-3 and the representation of Jesus in John 5 as a divine figure, who recommends the breaking of biblical Sabbath laws. While Crossley points out that it is theoretically possible that both accounts are fictitious, he argues that if one of these versions were to reflect a typical halakhic dispute, it would undoubtedly be that found in the synoptic gospels, rather than that in John’s story, which so clearly reflects Christian rather than Jewish interests and perspectives. Crossley, taking up Bauckham’s claim that the raising of Lazarus, found only in John’s gospel, is a more logical provocation that might lead to Jesus’ execution than the story of cleansing the temple as the bearing cause as presented by Mark, points out the obvious problem that the history-defying miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead cannot be understood other than as fictive. John 3’s story of Nicodemus is then taken up to show how John can be useful for sketching the development of the Jesus tradition in an effort to reflect later concerns. He also points out that Bauckham’s method seeks to affirm the historical accuracy of “unique, unusual, memorable and salient events” and is, thus, intrinsically problematic, particularly if this method were applied equally to other unique episodes of the gospel. Even if one grants that John’s gospel is based in the memory of an eyewitness, the problems of historical accuracy and creativity are not thereby lessened. Turning to the more systematic treatment of these questions by the Society of Biblical Literature project on John, Jesus and History, Crossley sees a definite tendency to make the arguments too general, leaving out as they do specific and critical details. Seeing John’s figure of Jesus in such vague and generalized categories as that of an eschatological prophet, a wisdom-related teacher or even a Cynic Jesus, Crossley points out that describing Jesus with the help of such categories hardly makes that figure more useful for the question of historicity. Taking up the project’s discussion of specific features of John’s gospel, he also makes the obvious, but, for his argument, important point that the uniqueness of John’s departures from the other gospels also does not make them more useful for such questions of historicity, however much they might enlarge the discussion. Finally, he takes up the often used apologetic premise that theology does not hold historical inaccuracies implicit. However, the argument is in fact largely a straw one to Crossley, who sees the primary opposition to John’s historicity in relation rather to the later historical matrix of that theology. In closing his paper, Crossley sees no reason to challenge the consensus that John’s gospel brings little new to the discussion of historicity.

With emphasis on thematic elements and patterns of composition, the following paper by Thomas L. Thompson. “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”, analyses the untold story in the beginning of Mark’s gospel in Mark 1:12-13, in which Jesus had been driven by the spirit into the desert for forty days, where, living among the wild animals and—Elijah like—cared for by angels, he is tempted by Satan (Mk 1:12-13). In contrast to the debate stories one finds in Matthew and Luke, Mark clusters these four thematic elements from the Old Testament, whose narrative functions are merely implicit, but all of which play an important role in structuring the “biographic” form of Mark’s gospel. Within a context of rewritten narrative, Matthew’s version is an allegory in the form of a stereotypical three-fold debate story, using Mark’s cluster of thematic elements as context, while the debate itself is a classic reiterative narrative, thoroughly integrated through identifiable episodes and prophecies drawn with a clear interpretive coherence from the Pentateuch, Kings, prophets and Psalter. Luke’s version is presented as an extension of an expansive baptism narrative, functioning as an etiological allegory identifying Isaiah’s suffering servant as God’s first-born. The story is placed as the first of four tales in which the central figure has been filled with the spirit and where the debate is presented as a reiteration of Moses stories in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Luke’s most distinctive element comes with the emphasis he places on his narrative variation of Deuteronomy 6:16 and his citation of Psalm 91. Each of the three versions of this episode is well, but distinctively integrated with each of the themes of the gospels in which they are found. In spite of the lack of a meaning-bearing plotline in Mark’s version, the cluster of motifs he presents identify a stereotypical tale-type, reflecting both the symbol-system of the Pentateuch and former prophets and quite specific biographical tropes, evoking an implicit mythic narrative. This narrative is identified with two tropes belonging to ancient Near Eastern portraits of royal saviour figures; namely, the title of “son of god” and the theme of “former suffering” leading to a saving reversal. A comparable construction can be seen in the biographical sketch of Job’s earlier life in Job 29, which Thompson understands as functioning as a parable. The biographical “events” of this episode are then derived from a cluster of central thematic elements in Psalm 72; namely, the central motifs of “good news”, victory over the dragon, eternal kingdom and universal empire. The essay finds its closure in a brief discussion of thematic reiteration as a function of such composition.

Ingrid Hjelm’s essay, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel,” in its analysis of the rewriting of Old Testament stories and motifs in the composition of Luke’s gospel, exposes an insight into Old Testament theology and the ideology implicit in its narratives and language that is far more sophisticated, complex and profound than the relatively simple “search and mark” method implicit in Matthew’s identification for explicit proof texts in the construction of his narrative. Casting doubt on the common scholarly identification of Luke as a “Christianized non-Jew”, Hjelm questions our methods for identifying what is “Jewish” in the New Testament. She argues that Luke’s methods of reiteration and parallelism, though quite far from the Rabbinic traditions of marking specific “utterances and fulfilments” as Matthew’s gospel continues, are rather typical of ancient Near Eastern and classical literature. While, from a modern perspective, the use of such reiteration has a tendency to undermine a narrative’s historicity and in particular its value as reliable testimony and witness, the recognition of such reiteration becomes an indispensible aid of the interpreter to identify the symbol system by which the text is used to communicate a strategy of evoking signs of its “transcendent” meaning. Centring her analysis on the theme of the return of God’s glory to Israel and the identification of Luke’s use of Chronicles’ portrait of David as Moses redivivus, Hjelm discusses the narrative strategies supporting Luke’s casting Jesus in the role of both Moses and Elijah’s successor as lawgiver and prophet in order to create an allegorically based role for Christianity as superseding Moses’ Samaritanism and Elijah’s Judaism. The roots of Luke’s theology are found in the role of the Davidic king as cultic and spiritual, rather than political. In Luke’s theology, Samaritanism and Judaism are not rejected, but reformulated within the theme of reconciling “all Israel”, which she finds expressed in Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. This central theme of Luke’s theology is illustrated with a discussion of the biblical roots of Luke’s “good Samaritan” parable.

Joshua Sabih’s article, “The ‘Īsā Narrative in the Qur’an: the Making of a Prophet”,which deals with the Islamic figure of ‘Isa, not only helps further understanding of some of the theological functions of the intertextual discourse on the gospel’s figure of Jesus, it also points out a significant aspect of the reception, through its identification of the implicit function of “mock narratives’” as a counterpart to the Quran’s use of the figure of ‘Isa. In particular, the ‘Isa narratives in Sura 3 and 19 demonstrate a clear lack of interest in any reconstruction of an “historical ‘Isa.” Moreover, such narratives in the Quran appear to be, but are, in fact, not fragmentary. The narratives maintain, rather, their original, allegorical and pedagogical mode. They are composed “to tell a different story” which is consciously and intentionally, ideologically motivated. It is as it were ’Allah who speaks, in a monologue. The accounts are not fragmentary; nor are they a mistaken retelling of the gospel story. They rather deconstruct that narrative within an anti-historical discourse that specifically opposes Pauline theology! It is first of all the cue name of Jesus and its theological significance (ישוע / יהושוע : he saves, Yahve saves ), which the Quranic narrative of ‘Īsa disputes. In the process of constructing its prophetic histories as a salvation history, the Quranic discourse revived peripheral narratives which had been silenced or “de-canonized” through the construction of an imperial orthodoxy. Accordingly, Sabih, rather than understanding Islam as one among many Christian or Jewish sects, argues that the ‘Isa one finds in the Quran is not identical with the figure of Jesus in the NT, even though the ‘Isa of post-Quranic Islam obviously is. The Qur´anic use of Maryam as the mother of `Īsā, for example, is not a confusion of an historical Moses’ sister with Jesus’ mother, but rather the opening of a discourse related to the question of the tradition to which the “two Marys” belong. To understand the Quranic ‘Isa, one must look beyond the question of historicity. For Sabih, the Quran is “a corpus (an assemblage of text fragments), a text (with both unity and cohesion) and a discourse. These fragments belong not to specific literary genres so much as they reflect types of discourse.” In clarification of his reading, Sabih presents a discussion of the Quran’s discourse on three themes: the name of ‘Isa, the “annunciation” and the “nativity”. He argues that the name ‘Isa is not the result of an Arabic translation of either the names Jesus or Jeshu‘a (“savior”), but it is rather a reiteration of the name Esau—parallel to late rabbinic tradition which, using the contrasting pair of Jacob and Israel comes to use Esau as an allegorical synonym for Christians, much in the way that Ishmael became synonymous with Muslims. Turning to more “bio-hagiographical” elements, Sabih sees Sura 19’s discourse on the annunciation as a form of gospel epitome, while Sura 3’s double-annunciation narrative outlines Isa’s prophetic destiny in an anti-Christian narrative in which Jesus regains his identity and humanity. Similarly, Sura 19 on the nativity adds an independent polemic voice to the discourse of the nativity, in which, the baby, ‘Isa, takes an active, prophetic, role, speaking and acting on behalf of Allah. In conclusion, Sabih argues that the Quranic literature should not be read as a text that is dependent on the Bible, but rather as an independent voice within the larger theological discourse. His argument supports the principle that no text is original and to be read in isolation from other texts.

The closing theoretical article by Kurt Noll, “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus”, takes up the central methodological question of the relevance of research into the historical Jesus for understanding earliest Christianity. Applying a model for the construction of central ideas which determine worldview and behavior of, for example, the “Jesus movement”, Noll sets out to argue that the historical Jesus—assuming that he existed—was irrelevant to this movement’s earliest stages. He presents the thesis in four steps: a description of his method, the identification of a key issue, an analysis and evaluation of the relevance of the role played by the historical Jesus and, finally, a comparison with early Muslim traditions, providing an alternative understanding of the data. After his initial description of what he refers to as a Darwinian method of analysis, Noll takes his key issue from the contrast implied in the choice of data between early orthodox and heretical Christian writings which have been analyzed by Richard Baukhamon the one hand, and the literatures of the ancient Near East, analyzed by Thomas L. Thompsonon the other. After a critique of Baukham’s identification of the basis of the gospels and early Christian writings in “eyewitness testimony”, Noll turns to argue that Baukham’s assumption that the accounts are “fully referential” is directly contradicted by Thompson’s understanding that they reflect rather recycled literature written in didactic and allegorical genres which are uninterested in original sayings or founding events. The conclusions of these studies, however, only appear to be incompatible; for Noll understands Baukham as having failed to trace his assertions about eyewitnesses to actual witnesses and points out that Thompson’s arguments hardly rule out a conclusion that the referenced events had indeed occurred. What has not been asked is why non-referential narratives about Jesus were promoted as eyewitness testimony. This question, he pursues according to his “Darwinian model”, with the help of an analysis of Paul’s dispute with Cephas and James and its provocation of an eventual break with Judaism after the city’s destruction in 70 CE. Noll then turns to an analysis of the development of ideas related to identifying Christianity’s origins with conflicts related to its roots in Judaism, raising the argument that a “historical” Jesus had become necessary for the success of Paul’s doctrines, a pragmatic solution for defending doctrine by appeal to Jesus as authority figure. Comparing Baukham’s data on Christian “eyewitnesses” with the more elaborate and systematic data related to early “eyewitnesses” for Islamic traditions, Noll then discusses a scenario by which this literary Jesus might have been invented and then presented as a product of such accounts and draws the conclusion that a historical Jesus was indeed irrelevant to the construction and development of early Christianity.

 

 


Notes:



1The Greek word for “carpenter”, ‘o tektwn, has the wider significance of “Artisan”, “craftsman”; essentially one who works with his hands. Among other implicit references to ‘o tektwn is that of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 2.1-5, in which the five-year old Jesus plays with clay and forms 12 sparrows. “A Jew”, understanding this as “work,” complains to the child’s father that he breaks the Sabbath rest. When Jesus is confronted with this by his father, he claps his hands and shoos his newly created sparrows away (cf. Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars’ Version, Sanoma: Polebridge Press, 1992, 363-372).

2 Rather, than, for example, the figure of Asclepius, who had learned the art of healing and whose mother had been impregnated by Apollo (See G. D. Hart, Asclepius: The God of Medicine (London: Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2000).

3 Hesiod, Theogony, 927.

4 So, e.g., Il. 1. 578; Odyss. Viii. 312.

5 Pausanius 8.53.5.

6 For gospel variations of Jesus parentage and family, see, Matthew 1.23’s interpretation of the LXX’s version of Isa 7.14 as well as the different origin traditions implied in such widely varying passages as Matt 1.1-16; 12.46-47; 13.55-56; Mk 1.1; 3.31; 6.3; Lk 1.26-35: 3.23-38; 4.22; 8.19-20 John 1.1-14; 6.41-42; 8.41-2; 2 Cor 5.21; Gal 4.4-7 and Rom 8.3.

7 See on this, K. Martens, “With a Strong hand and an Outstretched Arm,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 15/1 (2001), 123-141; I. Hjelm, Jerusalem’s Rise to Sovereignty: Zion and Gerizim in Competition (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 181.

8 Among the thematically relevant differences is Mark’s thematic question, which, in Matthew is rendered: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” Moreover, Mark’s theme is not reiterated by Matthew as “hands” does not form a leitmotif. The brother Joses becomes Joseph and Mark’s ironically significant closure of healing some with his hands finds a somewhat diminished formulation in that “he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”

9 On the form and function of “living parables”, such as the miracle stories of Elijah and Elisha and their influence on the Jesus stories, see the discussion in Th. L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Jesus and David (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 27-105; esp. 47-59.

10 On “the song for a poor man”, see Thompson, The Messiah Myth, 107-135; 323-335.

11 Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 200.

12 Geza Vermes, The Resurrection (New York and London: Doubleday, 2008), ix.

13 Th. L. Thompson, The Messiah Myth; R. Price, The Pre-Nicene New Testament: Fifty-Four Formative Texts (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2006).

14 Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2002), 9; Goodacre addresses the academic opinion concerning the hypothetical nature of the Q document..

15 P. Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images ofJesus (2d ed.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), xiii.

16 J.D. Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).

17 The Historical Jesus; Burton Mack, The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic and Legacy (New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2003), The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993) and A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988); F.G. Downing, Cynics and Christian Origins (Edinburgh: Clark, 1992); Paul Rhodes Eddy, 'Jesus as Diogenes? Reflections on the Cynic Jesus Thesis'; Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 115, No. 3. (Autumn, 1996), 449-469.

18 John M. Allegro, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth (Newton Abbott: Westbridge books, 1979).

19 Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973); idem, The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993); B. Thiering, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Unlocking the Secrets of His Life Story (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992).

20 S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (New York: Scribner, 1967); G.W. Buchanan, Jesus: The King and His Kingdom (Macon: Mercer University, 1984).

21 Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

22 James M. Robinson, 'The Jesus of Q as Liberation Theologian', paper presented at the Jesus Seminar, (October 25-27, 1991).

23 S. Davies, 'On the Inductive Discourse of Jesus: The Psychotherapeutic Foundation of Christianity', paper presented at the Jesus Seminar, (October 22-25, 1992) and Jesus the Healer: Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity (New York: Continuum, 1995).

24 E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985); John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2: Mentor, Message and Miracles(New York: Doubleday, 1994).

25 Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978).

26 Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee: A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus (New York: Paulist Press, 1985); Hyam Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee (London: SCM Press, 2003).

27 R. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987); M. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (New York: Harper San Francisco, 2006); B. Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus' Use of the Interpreted Scripture of His Time (Wilmington: Glazier, 1984).

28 G. Vermes, Jesus in the World of Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).

29 Maccoby, Jesus the Pharisee.

30 Maccoby, Jesus the PhariseeThe Dead Sea Scrolls and the Christian Myth.

31 M. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995).

32 H. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament. Vol. 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity (2d ed.; New York and Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000).

33 The central conclusion of A. Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus(London: A. & C. Black, 1910), 397-98; German original: Von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1906); cf. G. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 13 and J. D. Crossan, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 398.

34 B. Witherington, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (2d ed.; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 9.

35 J. H. Charlesworth, ed., The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity, The Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); cf. Th. L. Thompson, “The Messiah Epithet in the Bible,” SJOT15/1 (2001), 57-82.

36 The European seminar has met since July, 1996 and its proceedings have been published in a number of volumes since 1997, under the editorship of L. L. Grabbe in the T&T Clark series European Seminar in Historical Methodology.



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