Gospel Puns on the Name Above All Names
by Neil Godfrey
The discussion certainly gives modern readers a whole new insight into the possible significance of the name of Jesus — “the name above every other name” as the Philippian hymn informs us.
The author is classicist Professor John Moles of Newcastle University. The article is Jesus the Healer in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and Early Christianity [clicking the link will download the pdf article] in Histos. John Moles is definitely not a mythicist and my interest in the article is primarily the light it sheds on the nature of the Gospels. What sorts of documents are they, what led to their creation and how were they initially understood and received?
Imagine Gospel narratives that hang together through a web of puns on the name of Jesus criss-crossing with specific acts that he was performing and whose dramatic tension and resolution operate primarily through the readers’ awareness of these puns.
Moles analyses the Gospels as literary products of their time: that is, as documents that necessarily can be expected to share the traits of contemporary literature.
Much scholarship over the last four decades has demonstrated the importance of puns and name puns in Classical societies, cultures and literatures, including historiography and biography. (p. 125)Professor Moles treats the Gospels as biographies. (I think the biographical genre is only superficially apparent in the Gospels, but Moles says that classicists are not so hung up about the finer points of exact definitions of genre as New Testament scholars are. I think this is a loss for classicists and fails to take account of the contributions genre studies can make to ancient literature. Mikhail Bakhtin I’m sure would agree.) But that is neither here nor there compared with the principle thrust of his discussion.
Of the many levels at which puns work in classical literature Moles addresses four at work in the Gospels.
- Bilingual punning
- Punning by synonym (with synonyms or synonymous phrase rather than interacting with a cognate)
- Divine names are of enormous significance and are often understood to have more than one meaning
- Assonance and alliteration are used to assist the pun.
Jesus-Jason, the Saviour-HealerBut the central pun that Moles addresses in this article is the pun on the name of Jesus that embraces the concept of saviour and healer. We know that Jesus is the Jewish-Greek form of the name of Joshua which is apparently derived from Yahweh or Yah saves. But the straight Greek equivalent of Joshua is Jason and Jason means “healer”. Jesus is Jason:
[F]rom a Hellenistic Jewish perspective, they are actually the same name . . . (p. 127)Moles discusses the evidence for ancient myths that portrayed Jason as a healer and dying and rising god, or at least one who entered the bowels of a serpent and returned again to the land of the living. These myths have not survived in the literature, however.
In the following I square bracketed words I have substituted for Moles’ Greek text.)
[I]t derives from the pagan goddess of healing who is called [Jaso] . . . Thus on the Greek side [Jason] is a human name derived from a god’s: a theophoric name, just as on the Jewish side [Joshua] is a human name derived from ‘Yahweh’. Furthermore, for the early Christians, this [Jesus] is in some sense, and to some degree, himself a divine figure. There is also a simple matter of sound. [Jesus, Jason and Jaso] not only look very similar: they sound very similar. And the sound of names is very important. There is also a matter of extended meaning. There can be important links between ‘saving’, the basic meaning of ‘Joshua’, undeniably punned on in the NT, and ‘healing’, both at the levels of divine and qausi-divine and alike in medical, religious/social and political contexts. Given these links and the sound factor, one even wonders whether the many Greek speakers who knew that the Jewish god was denoted by ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yah’ could also ‘hear’ both [Jesus] and [Jason] as ‘Yah saves’ directly, because [sus] and [son] could evoke [sozo] and [sos], and whether bilingual speakers could even regard the Greek [sozo] and the Hebrew verb as cognates.” (pp. 127-8)So where do the puns on Jesus’ [=Jason’s] name enter?
Moles analyses pericopes involving healing acts of Jesus and draws out the impact of understanding that f0r Greek audiences the name of Jesus is the very antithesis of “disease”. He shows the creative ways in which the name of Jesus is woven through the puns on healing (iaomai), cleansing (katharizo), saving (sozo) and tending (therapeuo). Tending is important
in order to open the possibility that Jesus’ ‘tending’ of the sick links to his role as ‘servant’ or ‘attendant’, in the same way as outsiders could view the Therapeutai as both ‘attendants’ and ‘healers’/’medical attendants’. (p. 131)More interestingly Moles also argues that the climactic crucifixion and resurrection scene — again with its many punning artifices and links to earlier narrative puns — was originally crafted as the greatest healing act of all. The word puns in these final scenes evoke the healings and raisings performed by Jesus up to that dramatic moment.
Even Mark’s apparently simplistic Greek finds a new meaning:
Mark’s general treatment of Jesus’ ‘healing’ acquires extra force from a special feature of his narrative technique: his very extensive use of present tenses, which also occurs in healing contexts. Jesus’ healing in all its aspects remains ‘present’ to all readers and ‘present’ both in space and time. Thus Mark integrates the puns on the name of Jesus into the most essential Christology . . . .There is much, much more that I cannot do justice to in just this one introductory blog post. Other Gospels subsequent to Mark have their own particular punning skills to enhance their own dramatic and thematic interests. (And I like Moles’ acceptance of Luke as the last written of the Gospels, too!)
Although the Greek of Mark, himself apparently bilingual in Greek and Aramaic and perhaps even also Latin-speaking, is certainly rough enough . . . its creativity qua Greek should also be recognized, and Mark’s deployment and exploitation of the [Jesus-healer] pun (and of related puns) is an excellent example of this. . . . (pp. 135-6)
It is natural to ask whether the name of a healing Jesus is naturally going to find itself bound in a cluster of related words so what need is there to suggest that there is any deliberate punning happening, or why think the authors are merely taking advantage of what comes naturally at hand in the first place.
Some of the examples Moles draws to our attention do surely go beyond mere happenstance. I’ll like to look at a few more from time to time in posts here as exercises in “thinking aloud” about specific cases. But anyone interested can read ahead and start thinking about the possibilities for themselves.
Creativity with the Name of Jesus the Healer in the Gospel of Mark
by Neil GodfreyClassicist John Moles presents a case for the Gospels making creative use of the name of Jesus in order to drive home its unique status as the power that tends, cleanses, heals and saves. In the Gospel of Mark — the portion of his Histos article I am addressing in this post — this creative play on the name of Jesus culminates in the final crucifixion and resurrection scenes where the name emerges as a saving healing power of cosmic proportions.
John Moles is examining the common classical use of literary puns as found in early Christian literature. He draws our attention to the meaning of the name of Jesus itself (the name itself, not the person) and how this is played with for theological purposes by literary composers.
I have given my reasons for thinking of the Gospels as something akin to parabolic or metaphorical narratives. Jesus and the disciples, especially in the Gospel of Mark, can be read very easily as two-dimensional ciphers to dramatize theological lessons. (I am aware that much secular ancient literature was not strong on building three-dimensional characters but the Gospels, I believe, go beyond this.) So this article by John Moles has my mind racing across those earlier thoughts. What was in the minds of the evangelists? Was “Mark” imagining he was writing about a real person or was he creating a character to represent a theological name of powerful import to the faithful? Now this is not of itself a mythicist argument. (And John Moles himself is definitely not a mythicist.) The same question could well be raised of an author who was writing in response to a faith that in other ways was derived directly from a historical person, but for whom that historical person was lost and replaced by a “Christ of faith” idea. If any conclusions are to be drawn either way then they must be led by other evidence in addition to, or that otherwise embraces any argument in relation to, the literary one. So let’s just focus on the nature of the literary qualities in relation to the name of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as presented in his fascinating article.
In the following I will add my own comments in italics to my notes from Moles’ article. My own notes will probably often veer from the single theme Moles adheres to in his article.
The name of Jesus is announced in the opening sentence:
1:1 Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησου Χριστοῦ.The name appears again three times before his first act of “healing” the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue of Capernaum. Is there also significance that when Jesus is named it is as one who is “coming” and then “calling” others to follow?
1:1 the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ
1:9. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.Moles writes of the first “healing” that it of
1:14. Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God
1:17. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.
the man with ‘an unclean spirit’ (23), who hails Jesus as ‘Jesus the Nazarene’ (24) (remarkably and significantly, no introduction is needed), and is rebuked by the named Jesus (25). The ‘unclean spirit’ (26) departs and the people commend Jesus’ new and authoritative teaching, including his authority over ‘unclean spirits’ (27). (my bold)As pointed out in my previous post one of the puns on the name Jesus (to the Greek a name meaning Healer) are words related to “cleansing” (ἀκαθάρτῳ / katharizo).
I would also think that the name of the setting, Capernaum, related to the word “comfort”, is of poignant significance — especially so given that another one of the punning words expresses the idea of “tending”. Capernaum may not be a Greek name but Mark does appear to have been at least bilingual with a knowledge of Aramaic (and Latin, too?) as well as Greek.
21And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught.After this,
22And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.
23And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean ( ἀκαθάρτῳ ) spirit; and he cried out,
24Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.
25And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him.
26And when the unclean ( ἀκαθάρτῳ ) spirit had torn him, and cried with a loud voice, he came out of him.
27And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean ( ἀκαθάρτῳ ) spirits, and they do obey him.
Several healings follow, one group of which is described in terms of ‘tending’ (34), while ‘cleansing’ is used of the man with a skin-disease (40, 41, 42, 44). The sequence already illustrates how healing often involves other areas, notably those of purity and impurity. In the subsequent healing of the paralytic (2.1– 12), Jesus is twice named (5, 8), though there is no (other) significant vocabulary.So what does this mean to a student of classical literature?
Many Classicists nowadays, I think, would already feel that Mark’s dramatic and emphatic foregrounding of Jesus’ ‘healing ministry’ is underpinned by the very name of Jesus, which seems to be deployed both strategically (1.1, 9, 14, 17) and locally (1.24–5; 2.5, 8) in a telling way. The logic would be that the combination of Jesus’ much-repeated name, which means ‘healer’, with the lexicon of ‘tending’ and ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ effects ‘punning by synonym’, a process further helped by the intrinsic importance attached to names (both of exorcist and demon) in exorcisms, whether Jewish or pagan. Certainly, in Mark, as in the others, use of Jesus’ name increases—sometimes dramatically—in healing contexts. By comparison with Classical texts (with which, as we have seen, Mark has some affinities), such punning would be quite elementary, naive even, by comparison with a text such as Pindar’s Fourth Pythian, which puns in subtle and allusive ways on ‘Jason’ as ‘healer’.Illness and Sin go hand in glove in the New Testament, and Jesus’ healing applies to sin as much as to the flesh. This is seen in Mark 2 that begins with the healing of the paralytic (the one lowered through the dug-out roof) after Jesus declared his sins forgiven. This scene is followed by Jesus eating with the sinners at the feast thrown by the newly called tax-collector disciple, Levi. In response to the religious critics Jesus called himself a healer:
They that are whole have no need of the healer ( ἰατρός ), but they that are sick (2:17)John Moles additionally points to assonance and alliteration in the Greek here “reinforcing the link between [Jesus] and [healer]”.
Jesus’ next healing is in connection (twice) with “tending” (therapeuo) the man with the withered hand. Then there is the healing of the man with the “unclean” spirit (Legion — whose demons possess pigs and send them to their deaths). The name Jesus is used to bracket the main healing scene (5:6, 20) and appears at climactic moments before finally being announced to all as having done great things.
The next healing scenario involves the woman with the flow of blood for 12 years and the twelve year old girl raised from apparent death. The cluster of puns and their meaningful relationships is described by Moles:
In the healings of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood (5.22–33), Jairus requests that his daughter ‘be saved’ (23), the woman has ‘suffered many things by many healers’ (26), the verb ἰάομαι and the name Jesus are juxtaposed (29–30), and there is emphasis on the woman’s ‘being saved’ (28, 34) and being ‘in sound health [ὑγιής, 34] from her scourge’. There is significant overlap between ‘healing’ and ‘saving’. The juxtaposition of the verb ἰάομαι and the name Ἰησοῦς, proximity of cognate noun (ἰατρῶν), and proximity of alternative etymology (‘saved’) are telling. The punning on Ἰησοῦς and ἰάομαι is clear. The named (36) Jesus’ then ‘raises up’ (41–42) Jairus’ apparently dead daughter. Since both these episodes involve questions about ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’, and since Ἰησοῦς here appears, etymologically, both as ‘saviour’ ~ ‘healer’ and as ‘healer’ simplex, there is some sense, at least just below the surface, that the ‘healing’ done by Ἰησοῦς transcends, or sublates, the complex problematics of the Jewish purity laws. This sense becomes explicit when, in chapter , Jesus (unnamed) is arrestingly described as ‘making all foods clean’ (7.19).There follow other healing episodes associating Jesus with “tending” “cleansing” or removing the “unclean”, with “saving” in the healing sense, especially with the healing of Bartimaeus during which Jesus is named five times and in which the man’s faith heals him. But there is no special punning vocabulary with every mention of Jesus in healing scenes.
All this, Moles concludes,
seemingly prepares for the next item (which, if so, illustrates Mark’s unobtrusive literary skill).Up till now Mark has often punned on the name Jesus (= ‘healer’ in Greek) and “healing/healer”. “Saving” has been used regularly in the healing application, too, and once even when he raised Jairus’ daughter from death:
Now on the cross scoffers shout (chapter 15):
30Save thyself, and come down from the cross.One recollects where near the beginning Jesus said:
31Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.
They that are whole have no need of the healer ( ἰατρός ), but they that are sick (2:17)So at this dramatic moment we have Jesus, Son of God, bearing the name meaning in Greek “The Healer” and in Hebrew “Yah (God) saves”, alone and apparently cut off from God/Yah who does not save him even when he cries out.
Then Jesus cries out and onlookers think he is calling for Elijah — another pun, as Moles explains:
- Elijah also raised people, in particular (like Jesus) one from the dead
- Elijah had functioned as “an anticipatory paradigm” for Jesus by likewise being martyred as John the Baptist
- Elijah, meaning Yah is God, is cognate with the name Jesus.
- The cry for help, a line from Psalm 22, is spoken in Aramaic and the word for God here is “eloi” — another pun on Elijah (in Greek Elias) — so even his cry for help is interpreted as a cry for Elijah. (Mark also uses the Greek for God which also is punned against the name of Jesus.)
The effect of this intense and varied punning is to ratchet up the identity and theodicean problems of the crucifixion to the very highest pitch. Is ‘Yahweh’ ‘God’? Does he ‘help’? Does he ‘save’? Can the crucified ‘Jesus’ bring/be the ‘salvation’ of ‘Yahweh’?I have sometimes wondered if at the Passion scenes “Mark” was also figuratively and literally reversing the sick-healer motif that was constructed in the Gospel up till this point.
But of course all these problematics are resolved by the wider Christian narrative. Practising Christians who use Mark already know, and new readers who read Mark to the end learn, that the horrible mockery is refuted by the resurrection . . . , when Jesus ‘rose’ (. . . ἠγέρθη), just as some of those he himself ‘saved’ in ‘healing’ ‘rose’ or ‘were raised’ by him . . . . , and in some cases from death or effective death. So Jesus’ resurrection is the greatest ‘healing’ of all, the ‘healing’ of death itself. Mark’s soteriology of the crucifixion is rammed home by a whole series of significant name plays.
Jesus is blinded (blindfolded),
and bound (unable to move all his limbs freely),
and spat upon (made unclean like a leper),
and dies — by “exiting” his spirit (along with the one that possessed him at baptism?) with a shout as the demons had once left their bodies.Is he not here taking on all the sins, the diseases, of those he once healed and tended? And as Moles draws out, he also is figuratively identified with John the Baptist, or at least John the Baptist is found to be the one who announced — in deed as well as in word — the “coming one”. (Theologically John surely is shown in so many ways to be the representative of the Law and the Prophets.)
As I covered in my previous post, Moles further sees stylistic functionality in Mark’s “over-use” of the present tense. The healing power of Jesus is an ever-present phenomenon.
Given the way Mark has played with the name of Jesus the “healer” as the one who stands against all “the ills” of the world as they were understood and symbolized in the Gospel, Moles speaks of “Jesusology” rather than Mark’s “Christology” — stressing he is using it in a nonpejorative sense.
Moles’ discussion of the punning on the name of Jesus begins with the Gospel of Mark. That was the first gospel written. Others followed and built upon what Mark had started, sometimes taking it in different directions, including by means of variant puns As I have opportunity I may discuss some of these in future posts, too, especially if I can see I would like to add a few reflections of my own into the mix.
Moles concludes his discussion of puns on the name Jesus in Mark as follows:
Although the Greek of Mark, himself apparently bilingual in Greek and Aramaic and perhaps even also Latin-speaking, is certainly rough enough, and is apparently sometimes technically distorted by imperfect efforts to render Aramaic into Greek and by the sometimes inappropriate incursions of Latinisms, its creativity qua Greek should also be recognised, and Mark’s deployment and exploitation of the Ἰησοῦς-ἰάομαι pun (and of related puns) is an excellent example of this. There are marked felicities (as noted) in this Gospel’s literary handling and disposition of this material, too.The full import of Moles’ thesis is best appreciated by viewing it across all the Gospels and Acts. The full article by John Moles is available here.
More Puns in the Gospel of Mark: People and Places
by Neil Godfrey
Peter and Andrew Casting a Net or Doubtful and Vacillating?Jesus is walking along by the sea when he notices Simon Peter and Andrew “amphiballontas in the sea” (1:16).
The Greek word literally means “to throw around” and is frequently used in reference to nets. Here it is used in connection with the sea, so it is usually translated “casting a net”. But the word “net” does not appear in the text.
The omission of “net” is not to be ignored, for the verb amphiballo without an object also carries the meaning “to vacillate/to be doubtful,” which would make it a particularly apt allusion to the apostles’ behavior . . . .Peter has become proverbial as the wavering disciple.
Simon and Judas LinkedThe name Simon appears twice in the list of Twelve Disciples.
The second appearance of Simon is linked with Kananaios, “which means the zealot in Aramaic and alludes to the party of those who were stirring up Judea and Jerusalem to rise in armed revolt against Rome.” (p. 154)
Judah (Judas) “as directly as possible refers to the Jews of Judea.” His surname, Iskarioth, is “an Aramaic transliteration of the Latin sicarius, meaning one carrying a sica (sword), and thus corresponds to Kananaios.”
Tarazi thus sees the linking of Simon (Peter) and Judas as intentional, but his rationale is based on linking Peter’s activity as found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and I find this all too thin to hold.
But I note the bracketing of the list of Twelve with the names Simon and Judas, and their respective roles in the undoing of Jesus at the end. Simon Peter denies Jesus before men, thus earning the shame of Jesus when he returns, and deserts him; Judas betrays Jesus. Peter, the leader and first mentioned, is also like the “rocky soil” from which seed quickly sprouts but then withers when the going gets tough. I suspect that Mark has Simon and Judas as the first and last names in the Twelve to point to the culpability of all Twelve. Peter is no better than Judas. Some have argued he is worse for his outright denial of Jesus contrary to the explicit warning of Jesus.
I have also seen interesting discussions linking the Simon, John and Judah of the Gospels with their namesakes in Josephus, and their roles in the Jewish rebellion and war against Rome. Tarazi’s linking of Simon with Judah here in this way (Canaanite zealots and sword-assassins) takes on another interesting possibility in this context. But this is not something I can discuss in any orderly manner because the evidence is more suggestive and intriguing than definitive and cut and dried.
Mother-in-law with a feverMark 1:30-31
and the mother-in-law of Simon was lying fevered, and immediately they tell him about her, and having come near, he raised her up, having laid hold of her hand, and the fever left her immediately, and she was ministering to them.Tarazi asks why it was “the mother in law” of Peter who was sick with a fever. He answers:
The reason is that in Aramaic as well as in Hebrew there is association between hamah (mother-in-law) and hommah (fever); this is a play on words suggesting that Simon’s household is not just coincidentally sick but fundamentally so . . . (p. 144)I suspect Casey has overlooked this particular Aramaic-behind-the-Greek possibility because it testifies to literary fabrication and a characterization of Peter that is diametrically opposite of the pious one Casey ascribes him. The point of Casey’s Aramaic argument is to bring us closer to “the historical Jesus” – not a literary fabrication.
The Greek Iairos is a transliteration of the Hebrew verb ya’ir meaning “he enlightens/sheds light,” which is a reference to the mission of the Jews toward the Gentiles who are considered to abide in darkness . . . (p. 166)It also means “he awakens” and has been associated with the metaphor of “sleep” for death that Jesus speaks of in connection with his miracle of raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead.
Joses, brother of JesusI have always assumed that Joses is a variant of Joseph. But Tarazi writes that it is not a name at all:
While the name is not attested to even in the LXX . . .So what does the Greek hearer have his attention drawn to?
Ioseph is a very well known name; the hearer will immediately think of Joseph without the connotation of anything else. But when he hears an unusual name (actually, the name doesn’t exist as a name) his attention is drawn to something else. . . . (p. 168)
Ioseph is undeclinable, whereas Ioses is declined into iosetos, which draws the attention in the direction of a Greek word.And what is that Greek word?
it is cast in a way that brings to mind the Greek noun ios meaning “poison/venom.”Matthew thought it fit to change the name to Joseph.
We have seen negative associations with the other names of Jesus’ brothers — Simon (rocky soil, associations with Judas), Judas, James (associated with hirelings). If Joses reminds readers of poison, we can’t go much deeper into the pits of negativity.
Simon of Cyrene, father of Rufus and AlexanderSimon echoes Simon Peter not only in name but also in function as Jesus’ cross-carrier. Jesus had earlier admonished Peter to take up his cross and follow him. Peter failed, but another Simon was dragooned for the task.
As for “Cyrene”,
The Greek Kyrenaios resembles the Hebrew qeren (horn), a word that can connote “power” (in leadership), especially the power of the king as God’s messiah. . . . The play on the consonants k-r-n [the Hebrew has no consonants, and Greek uses “k” in place of “q”] is repeated in v.22 where Golgotha is explicitly translated as “the place of the skull” (kraniou topos) where the crucifixion takes place. (p. 227)As for Simon’s sons, Tarazi writes:
The names of Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus (Rouphos), may also have symbolic significance. The first is the name of the founder of Hellenism and the second a rendering of the common Latin — and thus Roman — name Rufus. The choice of Rufus may have had to do with the fact that its Greek counterpart begins with Ro, the first two letters of Rome.I have often wondered at the combination of a set of Jewish, Greek and Roman names here. Rufus also features as a military commander directly involved in the final destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Is this some cipher for the gentiles being “fathered” by the Jewish religion? But I will not argue for anything like this unless and until I find some evidence to run with. Till then it is not much more than curious shapes in the clouds. They may break up completely any time.
Joseph of ArimatheaMark 15:42-47
It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.Tarazi comments:
Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.
So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.
The surname, Harimathaia in Greek, offers few clues. It may have derived from the Hebrew har-rimmat(h)aimi (mount of decay), in which case it would prepare for the subsequent play on the words “corpse” (ptoma) and “body” (soma). (p. 230)Tarazi does not see this Joseph as a positive character in the Gospel of Mark. His role is to “take Jesus down from the cross” and bury him. This is not the act of faith, but the act of ignorance of the teaching of Jesus who said that he would rise from the dead.
SalomeTarazi argues that Salome represents Jerusalem, or more specifically Jerusalem’s Temple.
“[N]otice the similarity in consonants between this woman’s name on the one hand, and those of Salem, Jerusalem’s original appellation, and Solomon, the temple’s builder, on the other.” (p. 234)Tarazi finds support for this conjecture in the dropping of Salome’s name when the women are placed against the setting of the rock tomb. This rock tomb “carries the same symbolic meaning.” (p. 234)
Larry Hurtado was the first, I think, to notice Mark’s “midrashic” association of the “hewn out rock tomb” of Jesus with the “tomb carved out of a rock” in Isaiah 22:16, which there stands as a metaphor for the doomed Temple of Jerusalem.
(I have suggested that Mark was hinting at the tomb and resurrection conclusion when he created the story of the healing of the paralytic — and one flag for this is the way the four friends of the paralytic “dug out” the roof in order to lower the paralytic into the house from which he would be “raised up”. See my notes on chapter 2 in the “bookends” table at vridar.info.)
Other names such as Bartimaeus and Barabbas have been covered in the earlier post.
Sea of GalileeGalilee is not a “sea” and was known more accurately as a “lake”. But “sea” synchronizes with the other allusions in Mark’s Gospel to Isaiah and the image of the Gentiles being “by the sea”.
Not so much from Tarazi, but a few of many hits from a simple word search on the KJV of Isaiah:
Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. (Isa. 9:1) — is that Zebulun by the sea there? Does that bring to mind any name listed above?
Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea . . . . (Isa. 42:10)
Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters (Isa. 43:16)
the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. (Isa. 60:5)
CapernaumWhere Jesus has his house and where he works many of his miracles: means “village of grace” (Tarazi).
Also “village of comfort” — compare again the Isaiah references to God “comforting” his people, as in Isa. 40:1.
Bethany and BethphageOne meaning listed for Bethany is “House of Misery”; Bethphage is “House of (Unripe) Figs”. These were associated with Jesus when he came to Jerusalem. It was in Bethany that he stayed, and where he was anointed for burial and where Judas resolved to betray him. Bethphage is also the area where Jesus cursed the unfruitful fig-tree.
BethsaidaHouse of Fish. This was the place to which Jesus had directed his disciples, whom he called to be fishers of men, to sail.
Gardarenes and DecapolisThis was where Jesus cast out “the demon” named Legion, so that 6000 demons leapt out and jumped into pigs to act like lemmings are said to do. The area was also a place of tombs. So we have a legion of pagan associations: Roman armies, unclean areas, pigs, — and Decapolis itself (ten defensive city-forts built by the Romans).
Kotansky gives us an additional significance — one for Gardarenes itself. See Jesus and Heracles for details. Gadeira represented the end of the world (Gibraltar region). Plato links the area to a place — Atlantis — divided into ten regions. (He was very likely drawing a comparison with the ten tribal districts of Athens, but is there significance that Mark has associated a similar sounding place with “Decapolis”?)
Caesarea PhilippiI have discussed the symbolic significance of this area around Mount Hermon in earlier posts beginning with this one on the Enoch tradition. It was the place where heaven and earth met, or at least where angels descended to earth.
Mount of Olives“The place of God’s final appearance according to Zechariah (14:16-17) . . . “
Also the place of David’s “Passion” and prayer to God when fleeing for his life from Absalom.
32 And they come to a spot, the name of which [is] Gethsemane, and he saith to his disciples, `Sit ye here till I may pray;’Tarazi sees this as “another version of the parable of the vineyard and the tenants. Mark 12:1-12:
33 and he taketh Peter, and James, and John with him, and began to be amazed, and to be very heavy,
34 and he saith to them, `Exceeding sorrowful is my soul — to death; remain here, and watch.’
35 And having gone forward a little, he fell upon the earth, and was praying, that, if it be possible the hour may pass from him,
36 and he said, `Abba, Father; all things are possible to Thee; make this cup pass from me; but, not what I will, but what Thou.’
37 And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith to Peter, `Simon, thou dost sleep! thou wast not able to watch one hour!
38 Watch ye and pray, that ye may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is forward, but the flesh weak.’
39 And again having gone away, he prayed, the same word saying;
40 and having returned, he found them again sleeping, for their eyes were heavy, and they had not known what they might answer him.
41 And he cometh the third time, and saith to them, `Sleep on henceforth, and rest — it is over; the hour did come; lo, the Son of Man is delivered up to the hands of the sinful;
42 rise, we may go, lo, he who is delivering me up hath come nigh.’
1 And he began to speak to them in similes: `A man planted a vineyard, and put a hedge around, and digged an under-winevat, and built a tower, and gave it out to husbandmen, and went abroad;The original version of the parable is in Isaiah 5:1-6
2 and he sent unto the husbandmen at the due time a servant, that from the husbandmen he may receive from the fruit of the vineyard,
3 and they, having taken him, did severely beat [him], and did send him away empty.
4 `And again he sent unto them another servant, and at that one having cast stones, they wounded [him] in the head, and sent away — dishonoured.
5 `And again he sent another, and that one they killed; and many others, some beating, and some killing.
6 `Having yet therefore one son — his beloved — he sent also him unto them last, saying — They will reverence my son;
7 and those husbandmen said among themselves — This is the heir, come, we may kill him, and ours shall be the inheritance;
8 and having taken him, they did kill, and cast [him] forth without the vineyard.
9 `What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do? he will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard to others.
10 And this Writing did ye not read: A stone that the builders rejected, it did become the head of a corner:
11 from the Lord was this, and it is wonderful in our eyes.’
12 And they were seeking to lay hold on him, and they feared the multitude, for they knew that against them he spake the simile, and having left him, they went away;
1 Let me sing, I pray you, for my beloved, A song of my beloved as to his vineyard: My beloved hath a vineyard in a fruitful hill [=šamen],The name Gethsemane is a Hebrew/Aramaic combination of gat (winepress) and šamen (fat, plenteous, fertile). The latter appears in Isaiah 5, but gat is only found in Isaiah 63:2 and Joel 3:13 in connection with God’s final judgment on sinners before establishing his kingdom.
2 And he fenceth it, and casteth out its stones, And planteth it [with] a choice vine, And buildeth a tower in its midst, And also a wine press hath hewn out in it, And he waiteth for the yielding of grapes, And it yieldeth bad ones!
3 And now, O inhabitant of Jerusalem, and man of Judah, Judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard.
4 What — to do still to my vineyard, That I have not done in it! Wherefore, I waited to the yielding of grapes, And it yieldeth bad ones!
5 And now, pray, let me cause you to know, That which I am doing to my vineyard, To turn aside its hedge, And it hath been for consumption, To break down its wall, And it hath been for a treading-place.
6 And I make it a waste, It is not pruned, nor arranged, And gone up have brier and thorn, And on the thick clouds I lay a charge, From raining upon it rain.
In Isaiah it is part of a long text (63:1-66:17) following a passage about the eschatological Jerusalem (ch.62) and the preceding one about God’s final kingdom (66:18-24). The middle section containing the word gat is similar to Mk 14:32-42 in two other ways: the speaker in it recounts his abandonment by those who should have been his friends, and the prayer in it addresses God as “Father” . . . (pp. 218-9)To single out the key passages:
Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat? (= gat) (63:2)
I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me (63:3)
And I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me (63:5)
thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O LORD, art our father, our redeemer (63:16)
But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand. (64:8)
Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”
by Neil GodfreyOne of the gold nuggets in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels is its simple explanation of how how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like (as we shall see) Jesus. I say it’s a “simple explanation” but maybe that’s because I am biased towards the idea of studying how literature works and the importance of understanding the nature of a literary source before we can know how to interpret its story.
I can already hear the groans of people thinking, “But we all know the Gospel Jesus is not the historical Jesus; we all know the Christ of the Faith is not the historical person,” and so forth, so what’s the point? Answer: In a future post we shall see that the very idea that the Gospels can even be used as sources through which theologians can dig to find history beneath them — an archaeological image often used by HJ scholars — is a fallacy.
Let’s return again to John P. Meier. (We’ve spotlighted him a lot lately, and not only with these Owens posts. The price of scholarly renown!)
In The Marginal Jew, v. 1, page 12, Owens focuses on Meier’s bald assertion that literary criticism is of no use to scholars who are seeking to discern genuinely historical material behind the Gospels. (I have argued that that is nonsense but in this post I will try to channel Owen’s voice as much as possible.) And what are Meier’s grounds for giving a priori confidence in the Gospels as gateways to historical information lurking behind the texts?
1st-century documents of Christian propaganda . . . advanced truth claims about Jesus of Nazareth, truth claims for which some 1st-century Christians were willing to die. . . .Is not this a scholarly version, a slightly diluted version, of: “The Bible claims to be the Word of God and since the first generations of Christians willingly died for its message it must be true! No-one would die for a lie!” Scholar’s edition: “The Bible claims. . . . and since Christians died. . . . there must be some truth somewhere there if we look with the proper tools.” Both the conservative believer and the critical scholar in the service of increasing the credibility of theology to the modern world rhetorically conclude: How else do we explain the martyrdoms? How else do we explain Christianity?
When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.
- Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
- Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.
An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.
We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
Is Jesus really as historical as Thales?No. And the reason the answer is No is because the qualitative difference between the literary evidence for the existence of Thales and the literary evidence for the existence of Jesus. (John Meier introduced the comparison of Thales so Clarke Owens takes this as a case-study to illustrate his argument.)
stated, the idea is that all ancient figures are difficult to document,
and they all occupy an equally difficult ‘historical’ status.
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 222-223). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
The above quotation from Owens sums up a common assertion by those who insist that there can be no more doubt about the historicity of Jesus than there is about the existence of Julius Caesar “or anyone else in the ancient world”. But Owens point out that this assertion is “both imprecise and misleading” for the following reasons.
Clarke Owens is writing from the perspective of literary criticism but the principle is simple enough for anyone to see. One does not have to be a formally trained literary critic to see that
the type of literature we have about Jesus is qualitatively different from the type of literature we have about Thales.The above statement is also misleading because, by placing Jesus and Thales on the same level of historicity, we ignore the differences in quality of the literature testifying to each. When we examine that literary evidence we see that it is so different in each case that it is really impossible for the impartial reader to place Jesus and Thales on the same level of verifiable historicity.
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 225-226). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
What we need to do, what historians and theologians need to do, is first to assess the nature of the literary evidence for each.
sources of information about our two figures, i.e., the New Testament
canon and, say, the life of Thales by Diogenes Laertius . . . are not
even remotely similar in nature or known purpose.
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 231-233). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
That’s it in a nutshell. The Gospels are “not even remotely similar in nature or known purpose” to the ancient sources we have for other ancient historical figures.
The trouble is that most of us are familiar with the Gospels but few of us have ever read Diogenes Laertius. Luckily we have essays like those of Clarke Owens from time to time to bring the differences to our attention.
Owens leaves aside the question of whether any of the “facts” Diogenes Laertius writes about Thales were true or not. What is important is that
its facts are obviously of a different nature than the gospel ‘facts,’ and are offered in a different spirit and manner. . . .Let’s look at some specifics. Owens discusses The Life of Thales by Diogenes Laertius as a case study. (Reading through the list some may find points that they believe are in common with the sort of information we read about Jesus in the Gospels. I ask that we hear Owens out first — there will be much to discuss but let’s first understand the main idea of the argument.)
Today’s literary critic would immediately recognize and consider significant the fact that the gospels on the one hand, and Diogenes’ life of Thales on the other, are two entirely different types of works, the nature of which leads us to different conclusions about the reliability of the ‘facts’ each gives us.
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 236-253). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
There are no miracles in Diogenes. Instead, the sorts of things we read about Thales by Diogenes are key details about his life:
- the names of his parents
- the probable places of his origin
- the names of his treatises on astronomy
- his philosophical ideas
- his experiments and discoveries
My comment: The gospels, on the other hand, replace details about Jesus’ parents and his place of origin with theologically motivated selections of data [two gospels only name one of his parents, and that is done indirectly through a dramatic narrative scenes], and his teachings and relationships with his disciple with their own or later church theological views. Hence the “quest” to “dig beneath” the Gospels to find the “historical” Jesus.Then there is the way Diogenes constantly identifies for readers the sources he is using for his information. For examples of this read sections 23 to 35 in the Life of Thales. Diogenes does not ask or expect readers to blindly accept whatever he writes. He provides enough information for readers to follow up and check what he is saying.
Owens drives home the comparison with the Gospels: Of the evangelists we only find anything remotely comparable in Luke, and even then it is restricted to one passage at the opening. And right on cue with recent posts on Luke’s preface here Owens observes that Luke’s “eyewitnesses” are not clearly eyewitness of events since they are said to be “eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel”.
But Owens says something else that I find particularly significant:
Even in Luke the language of narration is much more like the language typically associated with storytelling:This leads us into the way readers identify different types or genres of reading material. There are certain “verbal categories” that tell us when we are reading fantasy, and others that tell us we are reading serious biography, for example.
In the days of Herod. king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah . . . (Luke 1:5 NEB)
A text that begins, “In the time of King So-and-So, there was a priest named Such-and-Such” is language within a narrative tradition which the literary critic recognizes as what we might call the “Once Upon a Time” tradition; a history could conceivably begin this way, but much more common following language like this comes a fairy tale, or certainly something both traditional and fictitious.Yes! It is nice to find confirmation of a point I tried to make some years ago on an open scholarly discussion group only to be met then with total silence. Read the opening lines of the Gospel of Mark — but first take Mark “out of the Bible” and read it like a piece of literature you just found lying alone on a desk in a library. It really does read more like a fairy tale or legend than anything we might call history or biography. A great and mysterious voice straight from the Prophets opens up the dramatic scene and then “everybody” in “all the land” comes out to hear the message and be baptized. Then out of nowhere along comes Jesus . . . . (Scholars and others, conditioned to remaining tone deaf to the literary tone of the passage, scurry to their concordances to find ways to argue that Mark does not really mean to say “all” or “everybody” whenever he uses such language.)
(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 286-288). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)
And yes, all this is true even allowing for the translations through which most of us read the New Testament.
|A fairy tale is a highly fictive form, as is an etiological myth, whereas a life history is less so.
Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Location 317). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.
Owens illustrates the same technique with a “random” selection of opening passages from Grimms’ fairy tales:
- A long, long while ago there was a King (The Golden Bird)
- In Switzerland there lived an old Count, who had an only son (The Three Languages)
- Once upon a time there was a King’s son, who had a mind to see the world (The Riddle)
- In the days of Herod. king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah (The Gospel of Luke)
- First of all, the Void came into being, next broad-bosomed Earth, the solid and eternal home of all (Hesiod, Theogany)
- There was in the very beginning nothing whatever. There was no sky, no earth, no water, but just empty space (Juaneño/ Luiseño myth)
- In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void (Genesis)
- This is the beginning of the Ancient Word, here in this place called Quiché. Here we shall inscribe, we shall implant the Ancient Word, the potential and source for everything done in the citadel of Quiché, in the nation of the Quiché people. (Popol Vuh)
- In the beginning was the divine word and wisdom / In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1 ASV/NKJV)
- Herodotus, Durus, and Democritus are agreed that Thales was the son of Examayas and Cleobulina, and belonged to the Thelidae, who are Phoenicians. (Diogenes, 1:22)
No such theologoumenic principle governs the parentage and home town information in Diogenes.To look beyond Clarke Owens for a moment and glance at what other scholars who do have a keener literary appreciation of the Gospels have been publishing in recent years, we can also see that their very structure — a series of loosely connected episodes followed by an in-depth climactic account of the Passion — follows the structures of Greek and Roman epics and novellas. Even the philosophical Gospel of John has been shown to employ the motifs and themes of ancient fiction.
In future posts we will compare the place of miracles in the gospels and other ancient literature. Most importantly, we will see how interpreting the Gospels through clearly established historical facts (as opposed to the assumed truth behind their narratives) can open up an entirely new world of understanding of the question of Christian origins.
Why the Gospels Blend History with Fiction
by Neil Godfrey
Associate Professor of Classics specializing in Hellenistic Judaism, Sara Johnson, may suggest an answer to the question implicit in this post’s title even though she does not address the Gospels directly. Johnson has a chapter in Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative (2005) discussing the way 3 Maccabees was composed to help shape Jewish identity in the Hellenistic world. One way it accomplishes its ideological goal is to blend history and fiction. Historical verisimilitude serves to anchor the Jewish reader to the “historical tradition” of the community, while the infusion of fictional elements ensure the correct message and proper identity are inculcated. A reader such as myself with a strong interest in questions of Gospel origins cannot help but wonder if the Jesus narratives were written for a similar purpose in the same literary tradition.
Sara Johnson’s chapter is “Third Maccabees: Historical Fictions and the Shaping of Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Period”. 3 Maccabees, if you have not yet read it, is available on the University of Michigan Digital Library site. It’s not too long. It opens with a scene of one of the “great” battles in the Hellenistic era, the battle of Raphia, in which the forces of Ptolemaic Egypt (King Philopater) routed the Syrian army of Antiochus III, 217 BCE. On the eve of the Battle there is an attempt on Philopater’s life but he is saved by a Jew.
In the euphoria of victory Philopater invites himself into the most sacred area of the Jewish Temple to offer thanks to the divinity. (It is the custom of victorious kings to enter temples that way.) The Jews protest, we we would expect and Ptolemy is prevented by some divine action to from carrying out his plan. He returns to Egypt, enraged, and orders the Jews of Egypt be rounded up and crushed to death by drunken elephants. God maintains the suspense by holding off his several rescue missions to the very last moment, and finally changes Philopater’s mind altogether so that he even tells the world what wonderful and loyal folk all those Jews are. Jews who had apostasized under his pressure are quite rightly slaughtered instead.
The tale is a rich mix of genuine historical details and fables. Historical persons talk with fictional ones. Accurate details of the battle and the preliminary attempt on Philopater’s life are as detailed and accurate as we find in the works of the historian Polybius. The same accuracy is found in the Egyptian’s tour of the cities of Syria and offering of thanksgiving sacrifices in their temples.
This prepares the reader for a tale firmly rooted in the known facts of the past. (p. 86)But the historical and fictional sit side by side:
When Philopater arrives in Jerusalem, however, we soon find ourselves jerked from the dry facts of history into the fantastic world of Jewish legend. Philopater wants to violate the customs of the Temple but is stopped by God. Angels stop the subsequent slaughter of the Jews by raging drunken elephants. We are reading a blend of “historical precision and blatant fiction.” (p. 187)Philopater dictates two official letters in the narrative. The first, to order the branding of Jews with the ivy leaf of Dionysus and threat of executions; the second, to attribute the folly of the first letter to wicked advisers and to extol the virtues of the Jews. The letters are composed in a distinctive and formal style that suggests the bureaucratic language of the court. Ptolemy Philopater really was a worshiper of Dionysus. The author is striving for the illusion of realism.
By embedding fiction within the details of genuine history the author is creating for readers a new history with which they can identify.
Re-creating a sense of national identity often involves reinventing the nation’s past. The invention of self-consciously historical fiction about the past is a widespread phenomenon in the works of many Jewish authors. While Jewish fictions about the past were certainly highly entertaining, they were not written merely to entertain. They serve more importantly as a means through which to articulate a particular view of the past and therefore of Jewish identity in the contemporary Hellenistic world. (p. 190)Such Jewish fictional tales vary in their genre (etymological legends, apocalyptic prophecies, historical narratives, romances), their content (Persian, Greek, Egyptian life), their language (Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew). Think not only of 3 Maccabees but also
- the Letter of Aristeas
- 2 Maccabees
- Tales of the Tobiads
- And of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem
- Artapanus’s history of the patriarchs
- the Testament of Joseph
- Joseph and Aseneth
Yet, as varied as the texts are, they do have one thing in common: they all, regardless of the language or the genre in which the authors happen to be writing, employ fictions about the past in order to make a particular didactic point about identity. (p. 191)Jewish identities varied. There were Jews of the Diaspora and Jews of Palestine; Jews who spoke Greek and Jews who spoke Aramaic; Jews who loved Hasmonean rule and those who loved gentile rule.
Thus it should not surprise us that the so-called Jewish romances reflect an infinite variety of ideas about the nature of Hellenistic Jewish identity. What is interesting is that all employ self-conscious historical fictions to get their point across. It would appear that the technique was infinitely adaptable. (p. 191)The identity that 3 Maccabees wishes Jews to embrace is one in which they maintain their distinctive Jewish customs without cutting themselves off from the gentile world and without losing its respect. Those who do find fault with them will be the few whose characters are incorrigible. Jews are people whom the gentiles — especially those in the aristocratic circles — highly respect. It is Jewish devotion to God — even their willingness to die to maintain their customs — that ensures they have the character to live as cooperative, productive and loyal subjects in the pagan world. All of these qualities are demonstrated and recognized by the way the author creates an extreme situation to dramatize their dynamics.
[The author] systematically manipulates the historical elements in his narrative in such a way that they not only give a superficial appearance of historical credibility, but they also work to support the ideological point he is trying to make. The author of 3 Maccabees is very much concerned with communicating a certain kind of truth about the past, but that truth is ideological, not historical. It is more important to the author that his account of the past look and feel true, and that it support the truth of his main ideological point, than that it should actually be true in the historical sense . . .Coincidentally I am also at the moment reading Todd Penner’s In Praise of Christian Origins in which the nature of ancient historiography is discussed at length. Penner concludes that a good number of ancient historians sought deliberately to write history as it should be, and that plausibility and narrative flow were more important than genuine past facts. History was didactic — writing a narrative that taught worth values. Penner and Johnson should meet up and nut out their differing perspectives.
The author uses historical details and the citation of documents to create a convincing illusion and to communicate his message more effectively. The version of the past invented by the author of 3 Maccabees was not historically true, but through the suspension of disbelief it expresses a deeper ideological truth. This is history not as it was, but as, in the eyes of the Jews of Alexandria, it ought to have been. (pp. 196-97)
Penner’s primary interest is the early chapters of the Book of Acts. But his discussion necessarily overlaps with the Gospel of Luke.
I have always felt a little uncomfortable with the perception that the Gospels are intended to persuade readers to embrace the Christian faith. To me they read like the sorts of narratives that could only be appreciated by those who come to them with faith to begin with. Certainly their differences point to rival interpretations of faith. But I prefer to think of the Gospels as works written in the tradition of the Hellenistic historical-fictions as discussed by Sara Johnson. They look to me as though they are laying foundations of a new historical and corporate identity for the earliest “Christians”. Just as the Pentateuch helped define the historical and ethnic or cultural/religious corporate identity of Jews (God only knows what their real origins were!), so the Gospels performed the same function for those Christ-cult sectarians who were looking for new roots and identities after the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE.
The historical trappings in the Gospels were just as necessary to accomplish this as were their fictions.
The Gospels: Written to Look Like (the final) Jewish Scriptures?
by Neil GodfreyThe genre of the gospels is an important question. Genre is an indication of the author’s intent. Does the author want to make us laugh at human foibles or weep over human tragedy, to escape into an entertaining world of make-believe, to be inspired and instructed by historical or biographical narratives, to mock establishment values, to understand and learn a philosophical idea? Authors choose the appropriate genre: treatise, satire, biography, history, novellas…. or their ancient equivalents.
Sometimes authors combine genres. We see this in the Book of Daniel where long apocalyptic passages suddenly break into the middle of gripping narrative adventure.
Another serious amateur researcher, Ben C. Smith, has posted a detailed argument for the gospels being composed as texts that were meant to complement the Jewish Scriptures in The Genre of the Gospels on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum. It’s an idea I myself have been toying with for some time so I can’t help but be a little biased in favour of his argument.
A common view among scholars today is that the Synoptic Gospels at least (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are a form of ancient biography. Ben Smith begins by taking on this popular notion by setting out the clear and distinctive differences between the Gospels and narratives of ancient lives:
Unlike most ancient “biographies” the Gospels are not reflective writings. They
- are not written in the first person
- do not self-consciously reflect upon the character of the main figure
- do not as a rule reflect upon the kind of book they were writing or on their purposes for writing.
Notice especiallyHe concludes with the clear lessons:
(A) the grammatical use of the first person,(B) the authorial reflections both on the overall, pervasive character of the person whose biography it is and on the biography itself, and(C) the way in which the author stands between reader and subject, consciously and openly filtering information, weighing options, and imparting value judgments, author to reader.
The respective authors of the gospels of Matthew and Mark never once use the first person of themselves, never once reflect on the kind of character Jesus possesses or the kind of book they intend to write, never once step in between Jesus and the reader to offer value judgments or the like. . . . The character of Jesus receives no attention at all: he gets angry, shows compassion, and reacts in various ways, but there is no attempt to create an arc of these incidents, no attempt to use them to demonstrate what kind of man he was. . . . [T]he “words and deeds of Jesus… do not display the character of Jesus, but demonstrate his identity.”As for the Gospel of Luke, yes, we seem to have a promising start with the prologue (though I would even question that much given that the prologue evidences none of the personal details normally found in those of biographical and historical works) but after that, nothing. The character of Jesus is just as flat as in Matthew and Mark.
By the time we reach the Gospel of John we have an explicit call to belief, to faith — not a “life of Jesus”.
The purpose of a βίος is to study the character of a person; but I have pointed out that the gospels do not really seem to care about the character of Jesus, what kind of man he is, and so forth; so far as Jesus is concerned, it is really all about his identity as the son of God.Exactly. At least that’s how I see things, too.
Even N.T. Wright Gets It RightFor all of the apologist N.T. Wright’s flaws I have once or twice found myself in agreement with him with respect to certain arguments so I do not feel quite so alone when Ben Smith likewise finds a valuable nugget in his many writings:
On pages 57-58, 65 of How God Became King Wright summarizes what, in his judgment,the gospels are really trying to convey overall:
In fact, to sum up the proposal toward which I have been working, the four gospels are trying to say that this is how God became king. We have, partly deliberately and partly accidentally, forgotten this massive claim almost entirely.I think that Wright is right about this. In the gospels, Jesus is not just a king, a prophet, and a wise man; he is the king (the messiah), the prophet, and the wisest of wise men… not as a matter of his personal character, mind you, but in explicit fulfillment of everything perceived to be promised in the Jewish scriptures; he is allegedly the climax of the story begun in those scriptures.
…the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel. All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear.
Continuation of Salvation HistoryThe “genre” we are broaching here is “salvation history” — the type of history we read in the Jewish Scriptures’ historical books, Genesis Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. But notice another scholar’s critical point,
Lest you are thinking here of all the kings’ armies fighting one another pause to focus on those chapters relishing in the rise of David and especially those leading readers through the ups and downs of the careers of Elijah and Elisha. (Thomas Brodie and Adam Winn have both drawn clear analogies between these Old Testament tales and the narratives of Jesus.)Close connections, literary and philosophical, between the Gospels and the Jewish Scriptures have been noted. The Evangelists share the Jewish belief that God (singular) can and does interact catastrophically in human affairs; beyond this, they believe themselves to be citizens of an eschatological age ushered in by a person from recent history. When this person becomes the subject of a literary treatise, it should not be surprising if such literature finds no exact parallels in the Greco-Roman world.What genre do the gospels belong to? I think that they belong to whatever genre the Jewish scriptural narratives belong to. I think that they are conscious continuations of that venerable tradition.
It is not merely that the gospels draw upon and quote the Jewish narrative scriptures; Ozymandias draws upon and paraphrases histories without itself being a history. The issue is that the gospels are, through and through, the same kind of texts as the Jewish narrative scriptures.
The Anonymity of the GospelsAnother significant feature about the gospels is explained by this hypothesis — their anonymity. Ben Smith cites Armin Baum’s case for this Jewish style of history telling makes the stories “more direct and vivid”. I believe more to the point is that the anonymity bestows an aura of authority on the tale. Contrast the Greek way of writing history where the author would intrude to express his own doubts or conviction about the different versions of events. Further from Baum:
In a second post following directly on the heels of his first Ben Smith elaborates this point by pointing out the same feature being a characteristic of ancient Near Eastern historical writing more generally.By writing their works without mentioning their names, the New Testament narrators deliberately placed themselves in the tradition of Old Testament historiography. Like their Old Testament models, they wanted to use the anonymity of their works to give priority to their subject matter, the narratives about the life of Jesus (and the spread of the early Jesus movement). As authors they wanted, for the most part, to disappear behind their subject matter. In order to move the subject matter to the foreground as much as possible they let their actors talk mostly in direct speech and abstained from any reflections in the first person. Even in this respect they took over the stylistic devices with which the Old Testament historians had already tried to disappear as far as possible into the background of their narratives. Since they were mainly concerned with their subject matter and not with displaying their literary skill, the narrators of the New Testament also largely abstained from elevating the colloquial Hellenistic prose of their sources to a more sophisticated literary level. All of these literary idiosyncrasies of the Gospels and Acts were designed to make the authors as invisible as possible and to highlight the priority of their subject matter.
The Titles of the GospelsI liked this point from Ben Smith:
I think that the very titles of the gospels, assigned to them probably sometime in century II, recognize this trait in them, this receding of the author into the background:[εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Ματθαῖον, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Μάρκον, [εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Λουκᾶν,[εὐαγγέλιον] κατὰ Ἰωάννην (the gospels according to Matthew, to Mark, to Luke, and to John)… these are not typical book titles (the noncanonical gospels were similarly titled:κατὰ Θωμᾶ, κατὰ Πέτρον, κατὰ Ἑβραίους, κατὰ Αἰγυπτίους).
But it has been noticed before that they are very similar to how people referred to the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures: κατὰ Σύμμαχον, κατὰ Ἀκύλαν, κατὰ τοὺς Ἑβδομήκοντα (the scriptures according to Symmachus, to Aquila, and to the Seventy). The scriptures are what matter here; the name of the translator is attached for convenience. Likewise, with the gospels, the perception is that it is the gospel story itself that matters; the name attached to it is seen as less that of the author than that of a tradent.
More detailsDo read Smith’s original post for more details if this topic interests you. One item I won’t cover here is his discussion of the word λόγια, its various connotations and the meaning it acquired around the time the gospels were written. Hint: Papias speaks of the λόγια of the Lord and the same word could be used of the Jewish Scriptures. Smith’s article adds other comparisons with books like Joshua and Daniel.
In Smith’s second post we read several of his after-thoughts that all deserve further elaboration. Examples:
What happens when you take a prospective Christian author who thinks in terms of something like Hebrews 1.1 and wishes to write up the latest installment in salvation history? In the past God spoke through prophets, but now he speaks in a son.The Jewish Scriptures are rich in the use of doublets — as is the Gospel of Mark; and in the use of inclusio or intercalation/bookending scenarios — as is the Gospel of Mark; and other details.
That is not just a quirk belonging to the author of Hebrews; many early Christians thought that Jesus was the end-all, be-all manifestation of God in history. Because now all those priests and judges and prophets and kings are epitomized in one person, we coincidentally get something sort of resembling the scope of a biography, one single individual.
But that is a byproduct of salvation history, not a conscious desire to imitate contemporary biographical writing. And of course, since it is not really about the lifespan of a human being, it comes down to just the career of this human fulfillment of scripture (not his upbringing, his early influences, which philosophers he liked to read, and so forth). And actually, this focus on one person, with a sort of unity characterizing the work, is closer at any rate to what we find in Ruth or Daniel or Jonah, I think, than what we find in the biographies, since the latter are about character, whereas the former are about God dealing with humanity.
Mark is consciously engaging in a sort of scriptural mimesis, not merely in the sense that he mined scripture for texts to turn into gospel details; we already know that much. But, rather, he is actually writing in the style, the mode, the manner, and the spirit of those ancient scriptural texts.
Notice, too, the way the Gospels are rich in allusions to the narratives of the Jewish Scriptures. Several scholars have described much of the content as “midrashic” re-writings of Old Testament texts. I see this, too, as a further vindication of Smith’s thesis.
Thought-provoking. At least I certainly think so.
Homer in the Gospels: Recent Thoughts
by Neil GodfreyMatthew Ferguson of the Κέλσος blog has posted an interesting discussion on Dennis MacDonald’s defence at the recent Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) conference of his thesis that a significant influence of the Homeric literature can be found in the New Testament writings, especially the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts.
For those wondering what the status of his views currently are in the mainstream of biblical studies they will find this an interesting read. Some comments:
Not surprisingly, MacDonald’s thesis has had a number of critics, but has also received a good deal of praise. . .
Overall, the general consensus is that some of the parallels that MacDonald identifies are very strong and interesting, while others are weaker and more speculative. But, one thing that was generally agreed upon at the SBL conference is that mimesis criticism is working its way into mainstream biblical criticism. In fact, MacDonald’s mimesis criticism is likewise going to be discussed at the SBL Annual Meeting in Georgia later this year. . . .
The fact that MacDonald’s arguments will be a central part of this year’s annual SBL conference suggests to me that MacDonald’s new methods are, indeed, making headway into mainstream Biblical Studies. I am not sure whether mimesis criticism will necessarily be central to interpreting the majority of passages in the Gospels and Acts, but I do think that it is very applicable to select examples . . . .
Competing with OT influence?
Ferguson stresses a certain point made by MacDonald in his more recent volume and apparently at the SBL conference: Homeric influence does not mean that the Old Testament writings were not also (or even more) influential on the NT writings. It is not an either-or argument.
Moreover, we know the OT did in places shape the gospel narratives. Some even suggest Jesus deliberately imitated OT stories as a way of explaining this. MacDonald wants to point out that anyone who wrote in Greek in the ancient world could not avoid acquiring some education in Homer and other Greek literature.
Literary creativity or oral tradition?
MacDonald’s thesis means that some of the narratives we read in the Gospel of Mark and Book of Acts have been created by the authors as they have re-worked passages found in some of the classical literature such as the Homeric epics. This contradicts or at least reduces the significance of the claim that oral tradition had preserved the stories of Jesus until they were written down in the gospels. (I have posted various critiques of oral tradition as a source of the gospels and will do many more I hope.) It is difficult seeing the oral tradition hypothesis being abandoned lightly, however. Without it the link between Jesus and the gospels is broken.
Another interesting aspect of Ferguson’s discussion is the relationship between MacDonald’s thesis and the genre of the gospels. I have been very critical of Burridge’s argument that they are a form of ancient biography and I get the impression that Ferguson himself has had some reservations about that classification, too. Yet he points out that if the gospels are a form of biography then that would support MacDonald’s thesis. Maybe. I don’t know. The Second Temple era was noted for producing literature mixing the genres to create new types of works. But Ferguson refers to a new work by Tomas Hagg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity. It’s very expensive so I’m going to have to wait a while and find some alternative means to get a hold of that work.