Reviewing Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Last Supper, Part Three (Skinner)

Pitre 2

Just to recap what I’ve done so far: in my first post I sought to introduce the major questions and methodologies guiding Pitre’s monograph; in my second post I pointed out what I regard as the strengths of Pitre’s overall approach. In today’s post I want to begin looking at the second chapter of the book (“The New Moses,” pp. 53-147). It may take a few posts to address all of my comments on the chapter.

Pitre begins this chapter as follows:

“If there is anything that is virtually uncontested in the highly contested world of Jesus scholarship, it is the conclusion that Jesus likely spoke and acted in ways that identified him as a prophet. Indeed, the idea that Jesus saw himself as a man sent by God to speak the word of God to the people of God has become a staple of historical Jesus research. As a result, it is relatively easy to list numerous examples of studies on Jesus that contain the now-requisite (and often lengthy) chapter exploring his identity and message as a Jewish prophet” (p. 53).

He goes on to establish the (now banal) fact that many scholars have sought to demonstrate that Jesus is not just any type of prophet, but specifically a prophet like Moses. In particular, he notes the following parallels (pp. 54-55):

(1) Jesus claims to cast out demons by the “finger of God” (Luke 11:20), just as Moses worked marvels during the exodus by the “finger of God” (Exod 8:19).

(2) Jesus chooses twelve disciples to act as leaders of the “twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30), just as Moses chooses twelve young men to act as “leaders of their ancestral tribes” during the wilderness wandering (Num 1:1-16). Jesus also chooses seventy (or seventy-two) disciples (Luke 10:1), just as Moses chose seventy (or seventy-two) elders to assist him in leading the people of Israel (Num 11:16-30; cf. Exod 24:1-11).

(3) During his public ministry, Jesus repeatedly describes his contemporaries who rejected his message as “this [evil] generation (Matt 12:39-42; Luke 11:29-32; Mark 8:12) just as Moses repeatedly described the wilderness generation as “this evil generation” (Deut 1:35).

(4) Jesus performs a sign in which he feeds thousands in the wilderness with bread (Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15), just as Moses had fed thousands with manna during the exodus from Egypt (Exod 16:1-31). According to the Gospel of John, the response of the crowd to this sign in the desert was to hail Jesus as “the prophet” (John 6:14), referring to “the prophet like Moses” from Jewish Scripture (Deut 18:15-18).

(5) Jesus performs a sign of the “blood” of a “covenant” with the twelve disciples (Matt 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25), just as Moses poured out the “blood of the covenant” at Sinai with twelve tribes of Israel.

Before I get too far into the argument of the chapter I want to point out what is already a huge red flag for me. Each of the instances identified by Pitre can just as easily be regarded (and have been identified by a significant number of scholars) as instances where the evangelists have intentionally re-cast Jesus as a Mosaic prophet. I recognize that this is a book about the historical Jesus and not necessarily about the nature of the gospels per se and also that it makes sense for Pitre to focus on what he deems historically plausible. However, since the canonical gospels are the primary “data” (his constant refrain) for his case, some clarification is needed. This lacuna in his treatment of the gospels is symptomatic of his approach throughout the entire book. In short: We never get any sort of statement about what the gospels are (in terms of genre), how they function as historical (or even quasi-historical) documents, and the potential usefulness and/or pitfalls in using them in our historical reconstructions. In the absence of such an exposition, one can only draw conclusions from the way Pitre handles the gospels, which to my mind, is as though they are records of what actually happened. I don’t want to be guilty of putting words into Pitre’s mouth or characterizing his work unfairly, especially since he doesn’t address these points directly. However, in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, it’s hard for me to get any other impression about his understanding of the nature of the gospels. (A personal example to illustrate my perspective on this: When I was a teenager making youthful mistakes, my mother would always tell me, “Chris, I can’t read your mind and I don’t know what’s in your head. I can only make assumptions based on your actions.” That’s what we are essentially forced to do in this situation—make assumptions based on Pitre’s silence on the issue coupled with his treatment of the gospels throughout the book.)

Let me see if I can state my objection with a little greater clarity. Many of us trained in gospels research have operated under a model that sees several layers of tradition operative in the text. The classic exposition goes something like this:

Stage 1: Traditions from the Ministry of Jesus (Traditions stemming from the historical ministry of Jesus in the late 20s CE)

Stage 2: Post-Resurrection Preaching of the Disciples (Religious convictions about Jesus that arose after his death)

Stage 3: The Writing of the Gospels by the Four Evangelists (Texts and traditions about Jesus that developed during the writing of the gospel narratives; what is often referred to as the evangelist’s Sitz im Leben)

This model developed within a German Protestant liberal framework and was widely adopted (even being embraced by the Roman Catholic church during Vatican II and spelled out in detail in Dei Verbum [§19], and the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document, “Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels” [§6-9]). The model has also been widely criticized of late and for good reason. For my part, I’m not convinced that this model is viable in the way it has been articulated and used for decades but a kernel of usefulness remains. For our discussion here, the most important insight to be gleaned from this model is the foundational recognition that the gospels are not records of “what actually happened” (as if such an interpretation-free reporting of human events were even possible). Instead, the gospels as we have them today are a combination of historical remembrance accompanied by later tradition and theology. It may in fact be impossible to isolate with precision “history” from “tradition” (at least as those terms have been used in this discussion), but that does not nullify the fundamental insight this model provides—the gospels are not raw, unadorned, historical “reporting.” Important scholars of decades past (e.g., Jeremias, Schuermann, et. al.) rightly, I believe, established the basic premise that theology and liturgical practice largely helped to determine the narratives as we have them today. Why abandon such a critical and important insight to take us back to a pre-critical approach?

Before I continue, let me clarify my own position on this a little:

(1) This model, as traditionally articulated, has its problems even though there is still great merit to its underlying assumptions. The model was often used with attempted precision by those working with “criteria of authenticity” that are now under attack (again, for good reason). However, even those opposing the form-critical assumptions behind the criteria would recognize that there is later tradition and theology in the final forms of the canonical gospels. In other words, we can no longer use this model to establish that Jesus definitely said “X” (Stage 1) or that “Y” reflects, for instance, the views of the Matthean community (Stage 3). However, in adding nuance to this discussion we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

(2) Variations of this model (and its attendant assumptions—primarily that later traditions and theology are present in the final forms of the text as we now have them) are still widely used by NT scholars working with the gospels. This means that some discussion of this subject would be valuable, and perhaps even necessary in such a lengthy and detailed reconstruction of the historical Jesus.

(3) It is PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE for Pitre to reject this model, but since he is writing an academic treatise using the gospels to reconstruct a historical Jesus, he needs to let his readers know where he stands on this subject with a little more substance and clarity. My concern is that he offers no rationale for how or why he might reject this model, even though it appears as though he has. The closest Pitre gets to discussing such concerns is on pp. 28-29 of his introductory chapter (discussed in my first post). He writes:

“Indeed, a whole host of issues that are fundamental to methodology in Jesus research—such as the literary genre of the Gospels, their relationship to the living memory and testimony of the eyewitnesses, the Synoptic problem and the existence of ‘Q,’ the question of whether the Gospel of John should be used as a source, just to mention a few—can no longer be treated as settled, but are the subject of lively debate and a growing number of competing scholarly viewpoints.”

But this is a bit too facile for me. Yes, there is MUCH that cannot be treated as “settled” but the genre of the gospels and the need for nuance in using them to reconstruct history are still very much in play. Otherwise we are destined to lapse back into an oddly well-informed sort of biblical fundamentalism. A little further down he continues:

“[G]iven the growing skepticism about the possibility of reconstructing the ‘original form’ of a saying or deed of Jesus, it seems illogical to base any historical conclusions on scholarly reconstructions of the words and deeds of Jesus rather than the extant evidence of the Gospels” (p. 31).

In response I would simply ask, “what kind of evidence” do the gospels represent? This critique will arise again when I discuss Pitre’s treatment of the Fourth Gospel.

But with my concerns about method aside, let us return to Pitre’s discussion of Jesus as a prophet like Moses. Pitre is concerned to demonstrate the plausibility that Jesus saw himself as a New Moses ushering in a New Exodus. The remainder of the chapter (pp. 57-147) is taken up with this question. Pitre begins by first examining the concept of a “New Moses” in Early Judaism. This discussion includes a consideration of the Old Testament (Deut 18:15-18; Isa 43:15-19) and early Jewish literature (4QTestimonia, Josephus’ Antiquities), before an examination of the feeding of the multitude. A clear strength in Pitre’s presentation here (and really, throughout the book) is his attention to parallels in the ancient literature (see e.g., the helpful chart on pp. 60-61). I can easily see how those who would find Pitre’s method acceptable might find his attention to parallels in the literature as the (or at least a) factor which proves his arguments convincing. He makes a number of astute observations in this section before moving on to a consideration of the four canonical accounts of the feeding of the multitude. I will discuss these and more in the next post.

I think this is an acceptable spot for me to “press pause” on my review of Pitre’s chapter. After readers have had an opportunity to digest and/or interact with what I have written here, I will continue, in another post, my discussion of chapter two. I look forward to hearing from Prof. Pitre but also from others who are interested in these questions……

Lend Me Your Ear: Malchus and “The Bible” on the History Channel (Skinner)

MalchusOn Easter afternoon I was flipping through the channels and came across the series “The Bible” on the History Channel. I had watched the first few episodes when they aired last year, but never actually watched the episode in which Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. I was interested to see that Malchus–a character who appears by name only in John 18:10, had a recurring role as the trusted servant of the high priest. The one thing Malchus is known for is being on the receiving end of a sword wielded by one of Jesus’ disciples. He never even speaks. As happens in much of the series, the character called “Malchus” is a conflation of the various accounts that speak of a “servant of the high priest” who is struck on the ear by a disciple in the garden of Gethsemane (along with some additional screenwritten material that doesn’t appear in the NT). I was paying close attention to how this would be treated because I recently wrote a brief chapter on the character Malchus for this book.

The story of the high priest’s servant having his ear severed appears, with minor variations in all four canonical gospels. In Mark 14 we read, “Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” The account in Matthew 26 departs little from Mark. Luke alone tells us that Jesus paused to heal the man’s ear (cf. Luke 22:51)–a detail the episode made sure to include. Only in John’s account is Malchus given a name and Peter identified as the perpetrator. One interesting detail that Mark and John share is the use of the double diminutive ὠτάριον (outer ear) rather than the typical οὖϛ (ear) or simple diminutive, ὠτίον (which also refers to the outer ear and is shared by Matthew and Luke). Some have argued that the choice to use this term is intentional, and refers to a portion of the outer ear or possibly the earlobe, though BDAG notes that it was used interchangeably with οὖϛ (ear) in later Greek.

So….armed with this (admittedly) extraneous information, I was watching closely to see how this would be depicted. I must say that I was surprised (and a little pleased) to see Peter slash Malchus across the ear, leaving a large wound on the outer part of the ear rather than having his ear hanging by a thread.

 

Can We Still Use “Embarrassment” in Some Meaningful Way? (Skinner)

MulletAnyone who reads my posts on this blog (or my previous blog) knows that I have been largely won over by the movement to dispense with the Jesus criteria. However, I’m not completely ready to jettison every potentially good lesson (cultural, literary, historical, etc.) that may have been spawned by discussions about the criteria. I have always been fond of the criterion of embarrassment because I felt that, among other things, it helped us trace historical developments in the gospel traditions. While I think Rafael Rodriguez has made a very strong case that we cannot use this as a means of getting back to the historical Jesus, I’m wondering if we can’t use the concept of “embarrassment” to help us better understand the evolution of certain teachings within the canonical gospel traditions? Let me turn to the paradigmatic example: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

It has often been said that Jesus’ baptism by John was a source of embarrassment to the early church that is subsequently explained away as the tradition evolves. I think there is something to this, though I don’t necessarily think it “proves” the baptism is historical.

In the Gospel of Mark, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4) and shortly thereafter, the audience learns that Jesus comes to him and is baptized (1:9). I like to tell my students that after this event, there is no parenthetical note to the audience which reads: “Dear followers of Jesus, do not be dismayed by this turn of events. Jesus was sinless from the foundation of the world. This merely took place as an object lesson for future disciples.” Instead, Mark, simply unaware of later Christological trajectories that would proclaim Jesus as “divine” (e.g. John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, etc.), proclaims something that was not AT THE TIME embarrassing. Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ baptism only becomes a source of potential embarrassment as the early church engages in sustained theological reflection on the life, vocation, and death of Jesus. It is hard for me to read Mark as an autonomous narrative and not feel that later traditions try to explain (Matthew) or even explain away (John), Jesus’ baptism. For Matthew and John the tradition seemed to be a source of embarrassment, even if Mark had no problem with it.

Recently in one of his podcasts, Mark Goodacre took aim at the criterion of embarrassment, commenting that the early church simply would not have retained something that would have been embarrassing. While I agree with much that he says there, I’d like to suggest a qualification to his point. Many of us make choices at a point in time that is not AT THAT MOMENT, embarrassing, but may prove to be at a later time. To illustrate this, we only need to think back to some of the hairstyles or clothing choices of our younger days. When many of us see photos of our youth we cringe at the sight of ourselves. When I was 21 years old, I had both ears pierced with big gold hoops and hair down to my shoulders. I recently saw a picture of myself from that period and I couldn’t believe how ridiculous I looked. At the time, I thought I looked “cool.” Today I look at myself and wonder, “what was I thinking” (and also, “what was everyone else thinking?”).

My point is this: We often have no way of knowing in the present what we might regret or be embarrassed by in the future. So, perhaps things that were embarrassing to the early church did find their way into the NT, and while we can’t necessarily use those to demonstrate the historicity of a given saying or action in the NT, we can use them to evaluate the historical development of traditions within the canonical gospels. I’m interested in your thoughts on this….

 

Crafting Jesus In Many Images (Or: What I Learned About Jesus from Will Ferrell) (Skinner)

dear lord baby jesusEvery student at our college is required to take at least one course in Religion. One of those courses is Introduction to the New Testament, which I teach every semester. As you can imagine, not everyone is excited about the subject matter and many are convinced that the class will be otherwise useless. I begin the semester with a refrain that promises, “The NT and its subject matter are all around you. You only need to pay attention.” Throughout the semester I seek for opportunities to show the relevance of the course to discussions that are continually going on in the public sphere (including politics, sports, social commentary, etc.). To that end, I open class every Friday with a video of some kind in which Jesus or some element of the NT figures prominently. Today I began with Will Ferrell’s well-known prayer as “Ricky Bobby” In Talladega Nights (see below). For many this scene is simply humorous, but I pointed out that it can be viewed as a fairly profound theological statement. One of the more common tendencies throughout the history of Christianity has been to craft Jesus into a specific image according to a set of lenses. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did it. So did the church fathers steeped in Greek philosophy, as did the Reformers, as we do today, and on and on. I found that this opens up some interesting discussion and sets the table for the lecture (which today was on the Gospel of Luke). Take a moment to watch this scene again (or for the first time) and witness for yourself the various images of Jesus that can be present at one dinner table.

Michael Licona, the Differences Between the Gospels, and Asking the Right Questions (Skinner)

Mike-LiconaOver at Greg Monette’s blog there’s an interesting interview with Michael Licona in which he attempts to answer the question, “Why do the Gospels contain differences?” I describe the interview as “interesting” because of the inherent tension (one might say borderline “contradiction”) that seems to attend Licona’s discussion of this question. Licona wants an alternative to the “harmonization” approach so common within his evangelical tradition–a sign to me initially that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels. He writes:

Harmonizing the Gospels is a common practice and certainly a legitimate means for reconciling differences. However, we should look for another solution when harmonization efforts begin subjecting the Gospel texts to hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell us what we want to hear.

By discussing the relationship of the gospels to Greco-Roman biography, Licona makes a move that shows his interest in situating the gospels in their socio-historical setting. His nod to Burridge’s widely accepted theory also seems to indicate once again that he is interested in an intellectually honest approach to the gospels. This research has apparently led him to an in-depth study of the bioi produced by Plutarch, which has taught him much about the various literary techniques used in Greco-Roman biographies. He writes:

Thus far, I’ve identified around 45 stories that appear two or more times in these nine biographies. Differences abound in them. At present, I’m engaged in identifying the differences and especially looking for recurrences of the same type of differences. It’s from these one gets the impression Plutarch has altered the details intentionally. I then propose explanations (or compositional devices) for the alterations that appear to account well for the differences in many, if not most, of the contexts in which the differences occur. Finally, I’m revisiting the more than 60 pages of differences I’ve noted in the Gospels to see if the compositional devices I’ve posited for Plutarch may have been likewise employed by the Gospel authors.

I have to admit that, to this point, Licona’s research sounds compelling and I wonder about what could potentially be gleaned from this. However, after this point in the interview, Licona appears to abandon the sort of intellectual honesty attending his earlier answers by insisting on the relative historical reliability of these texts. He writes:

 I’m hoping my present research will lead us toward reading the Gospels closer to how their authors intended. If my observations are correct, evangelicals should not be too quick to harmonize the differing Gospel accounts, and critics should not view the differences as a reason to regard the Gospels as historically unreliable accounts of Jesus.

This is where Licona tips his hand as it relates to his agenda (which appears to be demonstrate that the Gospels are reliable and that Christianity is true). As I see it, this approach is guided by a desire to demonstrate that the Gospels are historically reliable, which, to my mind is not necessarily “closer to how their authors intended.” What we know is that the evangelists intended their messages to be heard and embraced. The gospels are not sober history but religious propaganda written to engender belief in the audience (cf. e.g., Luke 1:3-4; John 20:31). The introduction of the concept of historical reliability imposes an external set of modern assumptions on these ancient texts, which is ironic given Licona’s earlier concern to situate the gospels in their literary and historical environment. A further irony is that Licona seems to have been researching Greco-Roman biographies as a way of shedding light on the Gospels, but he has been studying this ancient genre against the backdrop of modern assumptions about historicity and reliability. Licona’s ultimate agenda emerges with greater clarity toward the end of the interview. He comments:

Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead. And Jesus’s resurrection can be historically established without even appealing to the Gospels. Moreover, if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity was true prior to the penning of the New Testament literature. So, even if the Gospels contained historical errors, that would not at all suggest the Christian faith is false. Let me put it simply: If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, even if it were to turn out that some events reported in the Bible are not.

I look forward to reading the fruit of Licona’s research once it is published. Still, I fear that his approach (and those who adopt it) will confuse historical-critical scholarship on the NT and Christian apologetics–two areas that have very very different aims. Let’s let the gospels be Greco-Roman biographies without insisting that they meet any modern criteria for “historicity” or “historical reliability.”

Two Books Everybody Should Be Talking About (Part One: Goodacre on Thomas & the Synoptics)

My semester is now complete and I have been able to get to some much-needed reading that I began prior to the SBL meeting in Chicago. I have spent the past few weeks reading and digesting two books that I am convinced need to be discussed in much greater detail both in the blogosphere and in the classroom. The first of these is Mark Goodacre’s Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics. Those of us who read Mark’s blog and listen to his podcasts know that he relishes the role of “spoil sport,” especially on issues that are taken for granted within certain segments of academia. Well, he is at his spoil-sport-best in this current book, taking on the canons (accepted in many quarters of North American scholarship) that Thomas is early and independent of the canonical tradition. What makes this book so good is the combination of Mark’s erudition and creativity, along with his knowledge of the Synoptic problem, utility in the Greek synopsis, and skill in evaulating source-critical arguments. While I haven’t read everything that’s ever been written on the Gospel of Thomas, I have recently written a book on Thomas scholarship in which I attempted to explore the range of scholarly opinion within contemporary research. That book required me to read….a lot. Against the backdrop of that (at times, painful) reality, I can tell you that this is one of the most insightful and well-written books on the Gospel of Thomas that I have read. I will soon be posting an interview with Mark as I have with other Thomas scholars and I hope to find the time to do an in-depth review of his book. For now, let me provide my endorsement and strongly suggest that, if you have any interest in the gospel traditions, you get this book.

Interview with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas (Part II)

346151376_640Here’s part two of my conversation with Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Thomas:

(CWS) 4. I am looking forward to reading your forthcoming book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences. Since this subject is addressed in your book, I would like to explore your understanding of Thomas’s compositional language. As you know, over the past decade Nick Perrin has sought to advance the position that Thomas was originally composed in Syriac and is dependent upon the Diatessaron. What are your thoughts on his thesis?

(SJG) One of the things I tried to do in my book was to take a very large sample of the “semitisms” that some have argued point in favour of a W. Aramaic or a Syriac origin for the book and show that they are basically all useless as evidence for a Semitic original. In terms of Nick Perrin’s thesis in particular, one of the difficulties is that we have hardly any Syriac literature from the first and second centuries CE, and so we can’t reconstruct the grammar and vocabulary of Syriac in that period with any degree of confidence. On the specific matter of Nick’s argument about the Diatessaron, the problem is compounded further, as we don’t have the Diatessaron in anything like its original form – not a word of the original Syriac (if that even was the original language of the Diatessaron) survives.

(CWS) 5. I know you’ve got a book to sell….so please don’t give away too much. But can you briefly provide an exposition of your view on Thomas’s relationship to the Synoptic Gospels?

(SJG) Part of it I’ve already given away in what I said about about Luke. I expand the argument to include Matthew as well. Matthew is an interesting case because the disciple Matthew is referred to in GTh 13 as an authoritative spokesman (alongside Peter) for a view contrary to that of Thomas. So I think it’s very likely that this in an attempt to undermine the Gospel of Matthew.  There are also instances where, as with Luke above, Matthew’s redaction of Mark is clearly incorporated into Thomas. Overall, my view is that Matthew and Luke shaped the oral tradition upon which Thomas drew, and there is a substantial degree of influence upon Thomas from the Synoptic gospels.

(CWS) 6. What is your view on the compositional history of Thomas? In other words, do you regard Thomas as a compositional unity or are you persuaded by the piecemeal, “multiple accretions” approach advocated by April DeConick? Do you find either of these approaches convincing?

(SJG) I don’t find it too much of a problem to conceive of it as a relative unity. There are obviously a number of sources, and these haven’t necessarily been combined into a seamless whole. But I suppose I go slightly against the consensus in thinking that the Greek fragments are not too different from the Coptic version. It doesn’t seem to me that the text is very fluid and constantly open to extra accretions.

(CWS) 7. Another interest that I have, and one that I hope to promote on this blog, is research on the historical Jesus. In your opinion, is there anything in the Gospel of Thomas that goes back to the historical Jesus? If yes, what? If no, explain why not.

(SJG) I think that there is a lot in the Gospel of Thomas that – at least in broad general terms – goes back to the historical Jesus. The parable of the sower and the parable of the wicked tenants, for instance! One of the difficulties with this question is the demise (of which I approve) of the criteria of authenticity. How can you tell if something like Thomas’s parable of the assassin is authentic? I don’t know. My own preference is to look at the works as a whole for their portrayal of Jesus. In this respect, I think Thomas is miles away from the historical Jesus – rejecting the prophets and circumcision (GTh 52-53) and speaking in semi-Platonic language about the true image within (GTh 83-84). Thomas seems to me a far cry from the milieu reflected in the canonical gospels which fixes Jesus much more clearly in a real first-century Jewish world.

I’m sure Simon could have said a great deal more about these issues had it not been for time constraints. I do want to again offer my thanks to Simon for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. His book, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences, is due to be released at the end of March. We look forward to the conversations that will surely take place at that time.