Another Novel Background to “Secret Mark”

April 24, 2014

In a new article at Books and Culture, Philip Jenkins identifies a new novel as the inspiration for Morton Smith’s alleged forgery of The Letter to Theodore.  Tony Burke, who called my attention to the article, argues that the parallels are tenuous in this post.  I do not understand why some appeal to far-fetched parallels when there is a suitable ancient context to place “Secret Mark”:  the enigmatic streaker in Mark 14:51-52 or the omission of what happened in Jericho in Mark 10:46 are the kind of texts that a later reader might wish to fill in the gaps, the story about the rich man in Mark 10:17-31 was evidently read in 2nd century Alexandria to get the response in Clement’s Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved (note our fragment occurs nearby between Mk 10:35-36 and has a line “for he was rich”), and Irenaeus refers to libertine Carpocratians who emphasized that Jesus taught a “mystery” to the disciples (cf. Mark 4:10) to support their practices (Against Heresies 1.25.5).  Are there not the ingredients of our text?  Of course, those who believe the text to be forged could respond that a scholar like Morton Smith, or an early learned Christian, could also construct a text out of details such as these and this seems to me a less speculative scenario.  In the end, I second Tony Burke’s request for someone to review his edited volume Ancient Gospel or Modern Forgery in RBL because it covers the best arguments in a refreshingly non-polemical discussion on the side of authenticity (Scott Brown, Allan Pantuck, Charles Hedrick, Marvin Meyer) and forgery (Bruce Chilton, Craig Evans, Pierluigi Piovanelli, Peter Jeffery, Stephen Carlson) for readers to decide for themselves who has the better argument.

Facebook Discussion on the Ideal Gospel Synopsis

April 22, 2014

In response to Mark Goodacre’s RBL review of Zeba Crook’s Parallel Gospels: A Synopsis of Early Christian Writing, a lively debate on Facebook broke out between Zeba Crook, Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson.  Loren Rosson has posted the discussion on his blog.  What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of a Synopsis that translates Greek words with the same corresponding English words every time to let the student who has not taken Greek see the extent of the agreement between the texts and is it beneficial to have a reconstructed text of Q in there for students to see how one segment of scholarship goes about reconstructing the wording of a hypothetical text from the texts of Matthew/Luke (perhaps even for Q skeptics to point out weaknesses in the decisions made or how the double tradition is better explained via Luke’s use of Matthew or vice-versa)?  In addition to the blogs and e-lists, some of the best scholarly conversations are now taking place on Facebook!

Was Jesus’ Final Meal a Passover Seder?

April 18, 2014

This is a fitting topic for Good Friday.  An old quagmire is whether Jesus’ last meal was a Passover Seder.  In Mark the Passover lamb was sacrificed on the 14th of Nisan in 14:12 and Jesus made arrangements to eat the Passover in Jerusalem in 14:14, so he was crucified the next day on the 15th of Nisan, while it seems that Jesus is put on trial to be crucified before the Passover meal was eaten and on the day of Preparation on the 14th of Nisan in John (18:38; 19:14).  On the one hand, some scholars favour John’s chronology in that they question whether the activity of the characters is realistic during the Passover festival (e.g., would the Jewish authorities convene a trial, would Simon of Cyrene come from the fields, would Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus), Mark’s last supper does not feature a passover lamb, and neither the Pauline nor Johannine tradition seem to relate the Eucharist words to Passover (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26; John 6:53-58).  On the other hand, many details in Mark correlate with a Seder from the dipping of the bitter herbs in the common dish (14:20) to the unleavened bread and wine (14:22-3) to the singing of a Hallel Psalm (14:26) (cf. Luke 22:15 may make the Passover lamb explicit), Paul may be the one who transforms the last supper into a regular memorial meal to correct the abuses of the Corinthians when they had shared meals, and John has a theological reason to move the date to identify Jesus with the Passover lamb which was sacrificed without breaking its bones (see John 1:29; 19:36; cf. 1 Cor 5:7).  Regardless whether Jesus reinterpreted the symbols of the bread and wine at a Passover meal or died when the Passover lambs were sacrificed, the theological import of the Passover symbolism is that Jesus’ blood protects the congregation from divine wrath in the same way the blood of the lamb protected the Israelites from the angel of death and leads to a new exodus out of slavery.  The Markan and Pauline wording of the tradition also go on to allude to the distinct theme of the blood that binds the covenant agreement between the people and their God, though the Pauline/Lukan wording speaks of a “new covenant.”  If you are further interested in this topic, see the learned posts by Jonathan Klawans, Michael Cook, James D. Tabor, Helen K. Bond, James F. Strange, and J. Garcia.  For another view regarding a possible resolution to this discrepancy, check out the classic podcast by Michael Barber and Brant Pitre.  Have a blessed Good Friday and Easter.

Thoughts on the Latest Christology Smackdown

April 14, 2014

I have to mention that I have not read either Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher From Galilee or the rebuttal book by Michael Bird et al How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature.  Of course, James McGrath has an excellent round-up of all the exciting online discussion.  I also think the question about historical Christological developments through the centuries is a separate one from the equally valid theological question about the truth of Christological statements enshrined in the New Testament, Church Fathers or ecumenical creeds.  I can imagine a secular scholar agreeing with Hurtado that a dyadic devotion pattern (Hurtado) or the inclusion of Jesus in the divine identity (Bauckham) emerged quickly among Jesus circles and try to explain this not on the grounds of numinous experiences as per Hurtado but on more social grounds as a sharp break of a sectarian group that dramatically reinterpreted the formative symbols and traditions of the dominant group.  Or I can imagine a Trinitarian theologian agreeing that the “highest Christology” is not evident until at the end of the first century with John’s Gospel (Dunn, Casey) or sometime thereafter (Harvey, Fredriksen, McGrath) and yet view this as part of progressive revelation as the full divinity of Jesus was not grasped right away but took time and intellectual labour to work out an understanding to even approximate the mystery of the Incarnation.

Here are my untested blog opinions at the moment and I am open to correction.  I see two early lines of Christological development running through the NT onwards with variations.  One line has Jesus anointed to his messianic office like past kings at the baptism and enthroned at the resurrection in which he given universal authority and the divine name.  This seems present in the Synoptic tradition, pre-Pauline formulas (Rom 1:2-3; widespread use of Ps 110; speeches in Acts; exaltation Christology still evident even in the Philippians hymn or book of Hebrews) and may flow into the Christologies of 2nd century Adoptionists who saw Jesus elected as God’s son at the baptism or Possessionists/Separationists who held the Christ was a pre-existent heavenly being who possessed the human Jesus and left him at the cross (cf. Ebionites, Cerinthus,  Theodotus of Byzantium, Paul of Samosata, Valentinians, Gospel of Peter?, etc.).  The second views Jesus as a pre-existent divine being who became incarnate as a human, perhaps taking a cue from other intermediary figures (Angel of Yahweh, perhaps Similitudes son of man whether he is actually pre-existent or exists in God’s mind) or divine hypostases (Wisdom, Word, Presence), and this seems present in  pre-Pauline formulas (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20), Paul, Hebrews, John, Revelation and onwards to pro-Orthodox Christian formulations as well as other groups that may have emphasized the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity (Marcionites, varieties of “Gnostics”).  There is room to debate if someone like Paul thought of Jesus as the supreme intermediary agent distinct from and subordinate to Israel’s deity or if Jesus was included in the divine identity (e.g., Creator, Ruler, in a covenant relationship with his people); some Pauline texts seem to largely direct prayer/worship to the Father through Jesus (cf. Dunn) and imply that Jesus hands over the kingdom he is presently ruling and submits to the Father in the eschaton (cf. 1 Cor 15:27-8), while other texts identifying Jesus with wisdom and involved in creation (1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:6; Col 1:15-20) seem to move beyond agency to a Christological reconfiguration of the divine identity.  I grant Wisdom was metaphorically described as one of God’s works (Prov 8) or Logos (Word) as a “second god” (Philo), applying the language of agency to personified divine attributes, but this seems a round-about way of speaking about God’s immanent activity in the world and it is difficult for me to understand a time that God existed without his wisdom or word!

Perhaps there is more diversity as we are largely in the dark in the tunnel period between Jesus and Paul – perhaps other groups did not follow the Jerusalem Pillars on Jesus as the exalted Messiah and still saw him as a wise teacher or a sign prophet like Moses/Elijah as some of the traditions incorporated in the Synoptics envision him – but these are the two major Christological lines present in our extant NT texts (from a canonical perspective Christians might see the creeds as true to the witness of the whole).  One objection to my theory of two parallel lines is the lack of overt internal conflict, especially if there is evidence that Jesus was positioned on the divine side of the ledger in some pre-Pauline/Pauline texts, and active opposition to a high Christology before John.  Hurtado has argued that the silence is evidence of a fair amount of Christological uniformity across the board and argues that there is evidence of opposition to an early High Christology (cf. “Pre-70 C.E. Jewish Opposition to Christ-Devotion,” JTS 50 [1999] 35-58), but I just cannot help but see two distinct lines in the texts that we have and I am not sure devotion to Christ that other Jews rendered to God alone is necessarily the best explanation for persecutors such as Paul motivated to defend Ioudaismos (“Judaism, Judaization” against “Hellenism, Hellenization”), perhaps because some early Jesus followers were threatening the well-being of the community in talking about an imperially executed messianic pretender or activity inviting non-Jews without the demand for proselytism or perceived as attacking the Temple (i.e. if there is a historical core to Stephen and the Hellenists in Acts 7).  Another explanation I can think of is perhaps Second Temple monotheism was less defined and blurry before the Rabbis tightened the reigns in reaction to the “Two Powers heresy” and which gave some Jesus groups the liberty to push for a higher Christology than others, but this lack of conflict does seem to be a problem for my thesis as opposed to scholars who argue for an early widespread “high Christology” or for other scholars who argue “high Christology” is a late development signaled by the conflict it provoked in John’s Gospel.  What do you think?


The Griesbach Hypothesis

April 12, 2014

Blog readers have probably had their fill of the Two Source and Farrer Hypotheses, but some may think that in all my posts on the Synoptic Problem or my review at Marginalia I have not given a fair shake to the Griesbach hypothesis, the thesis that Matthew was followed by Luke and Mark was a later conflation of the two.  Part of the reason is that I cannot get in the mindset of finding this a convincing hypothesis as I am pretty persuaded by Markan priority.  However, for readers who may be interested in this alternative minority solution to the Synoptic Problem, you can check out The Two Gospels Hypothesis Website or Geoff Trowbridge’s summary of William Farmer’s arguments.  Let me know what you think are the strengths and weaknesses of this hypothesis in comments.  And this will be the last Synoptic Problem post as maybe I should talk about something the public is actually interested in like the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment lol.

Final Post on Q… For Now

April 10, 2014

When Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith started a poll asking how many were persuaded by the Q hypothesis, I wanted to post on the basic reasons why so many scholars have thought this hypothesis to be necessary.  I stretched this series far longer than planned, but it has been enlightening to look back at the arguments put forward in defense of Q as well as the critiques leveled against the hypothesis (thanks to the many commentators who pointed out the weak spots in some arguments).  I do not claim the expertise of a Kloppenborg, Goodacre or Farmer on the Synoptic Problem, but here are some of my thoughts.

I remain 90% sure on Markan priority and believe the way Matthew/Luke handle Mark as a source to be a significant clue to the reasons for the ambivalent reception of Mark in the first few centuries.  I am now 50-50 between the Two Source (2SH) and Farrer (FH) Hypotheses.  Anthony Le Donne’s post has a useful summary of the data that both theories are trying to explain when he writes “where Matthew and Luke have Mark to follow they look very much the same. Where they don’t have Mark to follow, they diverge dramatically in content and chronology.”

The advantage of 2SH over FH is it has Luke follow a standard method of using sources in the ancient world, alternating in blocks between Mark and Q and basically sticking to their order.  The challenge to FH is to plausibly explain away so many omissions or relocations of Matthew’s non-Markan material if Luke knew Matthew, though I grant FH proponents have taken up the task and given reasonable redactional reasons for why Luke might change Matthew in some case, and it is difficult for me to imagine that Luke had a much higher regard for Mark’s narrative than Matthew’s since the opposite opinion is far more common among early Christian intellectuals. The advantage of FH over 2SH is that it seems difficult to hold Luke’s total independence from Matthew given all the minor agreements, major agreements (i.e. Mark-Q overlaps), and striking coincidences (enlarging Mark with genealogy/birth and commission of the risen one; drawing on Mk 3:7-19 as the context of Jesus’ Sermon), which would especially be the case if Luke-Acts is dated later to the very end of the 1st or early 2nd century (cf. my handout on the date of Luke’s second volume Acts).  FH has exposed misleading rhetoric of some 2SH advocates that allegedly Luke never follows Matthew’s changes to Mark or there is no explanation for why Luke might have wanted to omit or rearrange certain parts of Matthew to make what the author saw as a more ‘orderly’ narrative (cf. Lk 1:1-4).  Perhaps there is refuge in a 3 source hypothesis (3SH) – to allow Luke had some knowledge of Matthew and yet stuck to a pre-Matthean source for the version and ordering of many sayings – but I think I would need to work through a Synopsis bit by bit with fresh eyes to see where on the spectrum I fall between Luke’s full independence (classic 2SH) to complete dependence in relation to Matthew (Goulder’s version of FH where Luke always secondarily reworked Matthew).

My Latest RBL Review

April 6, 2014

Over at the Review of Biblical Literature I have a review of the 2nd edition of C. Clifton Black’s The Disciples According to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate.  Overall, I am persuaded by his case that the once popular method of trying to sort out all the passages that belong to the tradition and all the one’s that belong to Mark’s redaction with precision is doomed to failure, for we just no longer have access to Mark’s sources to verify if any of the (discrepant) results of redaction critics are accurate.  Check out the review to see Black’s reasoning behind his skepticism.  However, I should clarify that I still think it is reasonable to assume that the tradition has undergone some development before it reached Mark and at the hands of the Markan author.  Scholars could still potentially point to certain narrative disjunctions (e.g., the climax of the controversy story about why the disciples do not fast because the bridegroom is with them given the added clarification that they will fast when he is taken away), literary arrangements that may alter the meaning of individual stories (e.g., the juxtaposition of cursing the fig tree with the temple incident), or comparisons with arguably independent accounts of similar episodes (e.g., the eucharist tradition in 1 Cor 11, distinctions in John’s Passion narrative, arguably independent versions of a pericope in Thomas, etc), but Black is absolutely right that we could never know if the editorial work happened at a pre-Markan stage or by Mark.  Therefore, if the goal is to understand the meaning of Mark itself, then we need to interpret Mark’s narrative as a whole.


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