Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Carlson on the Jesus Seminar

Steve Carlson has responded to my earlier review of The Five Gospels with some thoughtful and insightful comments. Steve writes:
Rather, it is more probable to me this that the dispute is not a broadside attack, but more like the kind of "inside baseball" discussions and disputes over the application of the Torah later recorded in the Talmud. In this connection, it is not irrelevant to mention a new blog, Earliest Christian History by James G. Crossley, who argues that Mark presents Jesus as a Torah-observant Jew.
In my view the writer of Mark does not present Jesus as a Torah-observant Jew so much as creates him as an example of what a Torah-observant Jew looks like seen from the outside: Jesus is the writer's idea of what a Torah-observing Jew is. Mark's Jesus is about as much a Jew as the King of Persia in Chaereas and Callirhoe is a Persian. In Greek novelistic fiction it is a convention to act as a "guide to the exotic" for the reader, and here the writer is building his character of Jesus using items that someone on the outside would pick up. It is interesting that Steve mentions Crossley, because Crossley has written on another aspect of this pericope (Mark 7:1-23). Some early manuscripts have "pitchers, kettles and dining couches" in Mk 7:4. Crossley (2003) argues that "couches" is the correct reading. In ancient Judaism, he notes, impure objects, such as dining couches, were immersed. Crossley also argues that the writer's knowledge of this custom shows a thorough familiarity with Jewish practice.

But dunking couches is exactly the kind of exotica that would strike an author discussing Judaism from the outside. Hey! Look how weird those Jews are! They bathe couches!The writer of Mark also has Jesus cite the Shema, another Jewish marker that would be familiar to any educated person living in an Empire 5-10% Jewish. He explains Aramaic phrases as well. The collection of items there is reminiscent of the way a modern writer might describe US, citing, say, the Declaration of Independence as a core value, and then discussing one of our strange habits like rattlesnake chili cook-offs, as well as translating our strange English. The writer of Mark has Jesus preside over a Passover meal, but the content is purely Christian. This is the outsider's view -- he knows the Jews have a Passover meal, but as a non-Jew doesn't know what goes on and hence in Mark 14:12 confuses Nisan 15 with Nisan 14. So, borrowing from Paul, he provides Christian content for it. Mark 15:34 is another good example of the writer's superficiality. He translates the Aramaic and then says the bystanders got the language mixed up. Numerous exegetes have echoed Raymond Brown's (1994) analysis:
"Having heard in exotic Aramaic Jesus' words "Eloi.....," and having been told that this was misunderstood by hostile Jewish bystanders as an appeal to Elias (Greek transcription for "Elijah"), they would have assumed that th Semitic underlying the Greek form of the prophet's name was close to the transliterated Aramaic Eloi that Jesus used. That is what hearers of Mark's gospel who know no Aramaic have been doing ever since."(p1062).
The writer was someone who did not know much about Jews writing for people who did not know much about Jews, and doing so in the finest style of the ancient Greek novelist.

Crossley himself explains this another way:
Fuller aims some criticisms at some of my arguments. Against my contention that Mark's audience included Jews and gentiles who were largely law observant (I'm not too happy about the term 'proselytes' in this instance which Fuller attributes to me), Fuller asks why then does Mark have to explain Aramaic terms and Jewish custom. In response I would point out that Mark explaining Aramaic terms tells us nothing more than some people in Mark's audience not knowing Aramaic. This has no bearing on law observance. There were no doubt plenty of law observant Jews and gentiles attracted to Jewish law throughout the Roman Empire who knew little or no Aramaic. As for explaining Jewish custom, this would have been necessary for people who did not know the specifics of Palestinian halakoth which can be extremely complex for some Jews, not to mention gentiles. If my overall argument is correct this was also necessary because they were the kinds of practices Mark and the Markan Jesus were criticising.
Again in Mark 15:42 he does not appear to know when the Jewish day began. In Mark 10:19 he adds an extra commandment to the list. Was the writer of Mark a Jew? If he was, he was not a very knowledgeable one. It seems more likely that the writer of Mark was not a Jew and the Markan Jesus was not criticizing these practices. He was writing as an educated someone who understands Jews as a superficial "them."

Jesus's disputes with the Pharisees reflect the problems that Christians of the writer's own day, probably sometime in the first half of the second century, were having with the Jewish Establishment. I doubt that Mark was even in part targeted at "Jews and gentiles who were largely law observant." They may have shown up by coincidence in the audience, but I suspect that Mark was originally composed as a narrative for recruiting or baptismal initiation, and that its writer did not think of it as history. It was meant not only to be read aloud, but also to be performed, no doubt with plants in the audience to explain things as it went along, just as missionary groups today will circulate recruiters through listening audiences to deal with points made in the main appeal. Its main audience would have been gentiles unfamiliar with the Jewish texts in detail but aware that they existed and had the prestige of great antiquity.

Steve also critiques the Seminar's explanation of its choice of places to start in analyzing the words of Jesus.
Third, the explanation given for this ("Otherwise it is futile to search for the authentic words of Jesus.") is facile. Scholarship is about finding the truth or concluding that the evidence to find it is not sufficient. If the search for the authentic words is futile, scholars should say so and explain why. Otherwise, they risk behaving like the proverbial drunk looking for his lost keys under the streetlight because he can see better there instead of where he lost them.
That's exactly what the Seminar is doing: finding a streetlight. And yes, the continuing failure to develop sound methodology for sussing out the historical Jesus is a strong indication that the search is futile. At least in the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark was created off of the Old Testament and the writings of Paul, and its author knows no traditions of Jesus. It is work of fiction.

Brown, Raymond. 1994. The Death of the Messiah. Volume 1 & 2. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York: Doubleday.

Crossley, James G. 2003. Halakah and Mark 7.4: "…and beds". JSNT 25.4 (2003) 433-447


the_cave said...

I might be ready to use the word "fiction" for the Gospel of Mark, but I think you need to be careful here. The fact that Mark is fiction--and even the fact that it's demonstrably based directly off OT and Pauline references--doesn't mean it has no connection with history.

Frank Herbert's [i]Dune[/i] seems an apt comparison I'm sure you're familiar with. There is no historical Paul Atreides (even though Paul Atreides is based on the character of Jesus, which just sort of begs the question here), but does that mean Frank Herbert knew no history when he was writing [i]Dune[/i]? Of course he did. He knew the history of early Christianity, the history of early Islam, the history of early Judaism, various messianic movements in each religion over the centuries...we can argue about whether or not Muhammad existed, but the tribes of the Arabian peninsula undeniably united in the seventh century, and undeniably overthrew the Persian empire and sent the Byzantines packing all the way to Europe. Shaddam IV is a literary creation, but can there be any doubt that he represents the historical figures of the Byzantine emperor and the Persian shah? (Among other personages.)

Or let's take an even more apt example: why is Miles Vorkosigan a short general? The answer is, I am fairly certain, because Napoleon was a short general (actually this turns out to be either false or an exaggeration.) There is no historical Miles Vorkosigan (whatever Napoleon's height, it no doubt had nothing to do with a poison gas), but the Short General, if you will, is now one of the stock figures of our collective consciousness, directly due to the historical fact that Napoleon was called The Little General.

This may be a far cry from actual history, but as I'm sure you know it is how much of fiction works. Who was the historical Jay Gatsby? Isn't it obvious who the main character of [i]Primary Colors[/i] is? (And isn't that the point?) Is David Copperfield Charles Dickens? Questions like these are taken seriously because there is truth to them--because these fictional characters have their source and inspiration in history and biography. The lines become even more blurry in the sub-genre of Historical Fiction.

If "Jesus" is taken to simply mean the sum total of the actions of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, well, I guess from your perspective, you could say he is a fictional character. But since Mark is obviously reaching out deliberately into the history of a specific place, why not search for his models in the history of that place? It seems like a reasonable conclusion (especially if he is as good a writer as you suggest.) Furthermore, if Mark is using the OT and Paul in the manner you suggest, shouldn't there be a good reason why he's doing so? Wouldn't a good reason be: because it's something his audience would recognize and respect? In which case, Mark is writing to a community (from what you claim, new converts to Christianity) who are already doing what he's doing--or at least familiar with it. In which case, Jesus begins to resemble a member of a community.

Michael Turton said...

Cave...I have a 200,000 word commentary that extensively compiles and discusses Mark's models for his pericopes. "Fiction" here simply asserts that the story contains no real history about its central figure.


the_cave said...

Sure, much of which I've read. But let's take an example you've brought up: the healing of blind Bartimaeus. You don't think Bartimaeus represents anything (or anyone) beyond a literary reference?

Michael Turton said...

Sure, much of which I've read. But let's take an example you've brought up: the healing of blind Bartimaeus. You don't think Bartimaeus represents anything (or anyone) beyond a literary reference?

You mean historically? No. His function is entirely literary. The pericope has either been interpolated or extensively rewritten (having Jesus meet a blind man just before entering Jerusalem makes a nice narrative scene).

I know you think that the sequence there is based on an earlier source. Neil Godfrey is making some arguments for an earlier source for the Passion as well. I am skeptical but remain open. Still, more and more of the original structure of Mark is becoming clear as I tinker with the Bethsaida section, and it looks like the Passion is a de novo creation based on the sources I've pointed to already.


the_cave said...

It's true, I do think there was an earlier source (or even earlier sources), but that's not necessarily what I'm arguing for here. I'm simply saying (and agreeing with you, I think) that Bartimaeus must have served as some sort of commentary on the real-world situation for the reader (and hence for the author), otherwise Mark's narrative is useless. Of course you agree with this ;) The creation of this particular event may have been entirely literary, but the motivation must have been historical--and the historical motivation is the driving force--the key thing, if you will. Hence, the resulting story is a literary creation, but one that specifically addresses (and even directly reflects) real history. Whether or not Mark is fiction, his motivations can't have been entirely literary--hence, while Jesus' encounter with Barimaeus may be completely legendary, there seems to be some sense in which it must reflect some actual historical situation. Christianity was not just a book club, after all--it was a movement, with leaders and teachings and practices and so forth, and so I can only make sense of Mark, however literary he is, in that context. So it's hard for me to agree that there is no real historical information about the figure of Jesus in Mark whatsoever, even if the entire thing is literary. There's *something* there, as a whole--it's just very difficult to see.

We might simply be seeing two sides to the same coin here.

Aaron M.Denbo, M.Rel said...

In regard to the literary effect of the Blind Bartimaeus piece, there is a good article in [i] New Testament Studies [i] comparing the Bartimaeus incident with Vespasian.

Eve, Eric. “Spit in Your Eye” in New Testament Studies. Vol 54, No. 1, January 2008.